Non-EU student tuition fee debate enters another round

The Norwegian government’s proposal to introduce tuition fees in 2023 for all full degree students from outside the European Union (EU), the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland, has been criticised as a flagrantly discriminatory policy which targets the world’s most vulnerable groups, particularly those in the Global South.

Up until now, all students at Norwegian universities, including international students, have enjoyed tuition-fee-free study.

In defence of the proposal, Minister of Research and Higher Education Ola Borten Moe said that Norwegian students as a rule have to pay tuition fees in other countries.

“There is no reason for this to be different in Norway. Norway shall still be open for students from abroad, but we think that they should also pay for their studies here,” he said at the presentation of the government’s budget on 6 October 2022.

The Ministry of Education and Research has drafted a 10-page note on the background of the proposals which will entail changes to the legislation, with a deadline for comments set for 7 December 2022.

The tuition fee levels have yet to be set but it is proposed that higher education institutions will be allowed to set their fees at a higher level for courses in high demand and the budget will be structured so that the institutions will be motivated to attract as many students from abroad as possible. The tuition fee plan excludes exchange students.

Quality is enough

“Our universities and university colleges are well fitted to attract international students because the quality is good, not because they are free of charge. I believe that tuition fees will give us more motivated international students,” Borten Moe said. “Since we will have fewer international students, this will release both study places and housing for Norwegian students,” he said.

“The world is in a great crisis leading to greater pressure on public funding and Norway is not an exception. We are still going to invest in higher education and research, but higher education institutions have to look out for alternative ways of funding,” Borten Moe said.

“If the institutions succeed in attracting more international students, this will increase the higher education capacity in Norway,” he said.

The government estimates that tuition fee income will be NOK74.4 million (US$6.9 million) in 2023, increasing to NOK297.7 million (US$27.6 million) in 2025. The savings to higher education is estimated to be NOK1.2 billion.

Based on the experiences of Sweden and Denmark, the Norwegian government has estimated that the introduction of tuition fees will lead to 70% fewer international students, which will free up 2,600 study places for two-year courses for Norwegian and EU, EEA and Swiss students.

In 2019, there were approximately 19,000 international students in Norway and half of these were taking a full degree.

In 2020, the 10 countries outside the EU, EEA and Switzerland sending most international students to Norway were: China (834), Iran (650), Syria (623), Pakistan (525), India (514), Nepal (501), United States (424), the Philippines (322), Bangladesh (274) and Russia (273).

The question of tuition fees for international students has been raised in parliament several times in the past, the most recent being November 2021 when Roy Steffensen of the Progressive Party reminded Borten Moe that he had in the past suggested support for the introduction of international student fees.

“Norway is one of the very few countries in the world which is offering higher education free of charge for international students. Approximately 25,000 students from abroad are studying in Norway at an average cost of NOK200,000 [US$18,500] and this means that this is costing Norwegian taxpayers approximately NOK5 billion [US$464 million] each year, or approximately one-seventh of all resources invested in higher education,” Steffensen told parliament last year.

At the time, Borten Moe responded by arguing that internationalisation was important for securing the quality of Norwegian higher education and that “the government’s principle of free higher education would still be practised, including for international students”.

Political pressure

The latest proposal now has more chance than ever of being passed because it is supported by the Social Democrats and Centre parties, which together make up 76 of the 169 seats, and Conservatives, who make up 36 seats.

Nonetheless, because of the ideological U-turn it represents, the proposal has come as a surprise to some.

Leader of the Norwegian National Union of Students (NSO) Maike Marie Godal Dam said she was “shocked over the governmental proposal which is threatening the free of charge principle and which is in conflict with the Hurdal platform one year back. This is a clear indication that we cannot trust that the government will follow its own platform and policy.”

The Hurdal platform, formed by the Labour Party and the Center Party when the government assumed office in October 2021, promises free higher education for all students, including international students.

Defending the about-turn, Borten Moe said university tuition would still be free for students from Norway and Europe and for exchange students. “It cannot be that our welfare services shall be available for the whole world. A person from Iran or China shall of course not have access to our health and welfare support system. Now it will be the same here,” he said.

Declining Global South support

There are concerns that, with this plan, the country will close one of the few remaining doors open to poorer students from Africa and other developing countries after it ended the Norwegian Quota Scheme in 2016. That scheme, which provided 1,100 grants to students from the Global South and Eastern Europe, had been in operation since 1994.

In the past, the Christian People’s Party has argued that the availability of free tuition to international students constituted a form of ‘payback’ for Norway which had exploited other higher education systems for decades.

After World War II, for example, a cash-strapped Norway was forced to send many of its students abroad for higher education and in the 1950s more than 30% of Norwegian students were still overseas. Even today, 3,000 Norwegian students are studying medicine outside Norway (many in Eastern Europe) – the same number as those studying medicine within Norway. Altogether 19,400 Norwegian students, or 8,3% of the student population, were studying abroad in 2020-21.

Resistance to the plan is compounded by the fact that while all countries, including Norway, are being affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine, the country is benefiting significantly from the high prices it is able to command in the export of its natural gas reserves.

Emmanuel Kofi Ovon Babatunde, senior advisor at the Division of Research and Innovation at the University of Bergen who came to Norway through the quota programme, described the plan as the “most discriminatory policy [he has] ever experienced since … coming to Norway over 30 years ago”.

“The shocking thing about it is that it is targeted against the most vulnerable groups – those coming from developing countries in Africa… It was bad enough that they decided to deny Africans the funding scheme to take their degrees in Norway. But to introduce a fee and to even threaten the universities not to undercut these fees is an encroachment on the autonomy of the university as an independent institution,” he told University World News.

“This reminds me of a third world country dictatorship [rather] than a democratic Norway. As if this is not bad enough, it is coming from a left-centre coalition that has had its base in these same groups that they are targeting. They will pay a heavy price for it and we will mobilise against this law. But if, for [some] reason, it gets passed we will make sure they pay for it.”

The wrong direction

Professor Sunniva Whittaker, chair of Universities Norway (UHR), was equally critical of the move.

“The government’s proposal to introduce tuition fees for students from outside the EU and the EEA [combined with a reduction in] the grants for Norwegian students abroad and further cuts in international collaboration, for instance with the Global South, the UHR thinks, is going in the wrong direction.”

Professor Curt Rice, rector of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), agreed, saying: “We have many students from the Global South at NMBU. If we are going to solve the many grand challenges confronting the world, higher education has to be accessible for those wanting it and who are motivated.

“Many of our students are contributing to important areas in their home countries after graduation. Many of them will not have possibilities to come and study here if they must pay tuition fees,” Rice said.

President of the International Student Union in Norway Amine Fquihi said: “The lack of highly ranked universities, the language barrier, plus tuition fees will make Norway a little less attractive. For instance, how will students from Asia with highly competitive higher education institutions look at this when they are deciding to study in Norway or in the UK or US?”

Increase in the wealth gap

“By introducing tuition fees in Norway for international students outside the EU and EEA, we will be effectively increasing the gap between the wealthy and others in developing countries. Only the wealthiest in these countries will be able to take advantage of the opportunity to study in Norway – a country without visible class hierarchies,” Fquihi told University World News.

He said as things stand now, students that come to Norway from repressive political and social environments are given the chance to blossom in the liberal atmosphere and develop their academic competence.

“They then contribute to the academic environment and eventually Norway’s workforce. When they return home, they have the benefit of an education to make a contribution to their society and the world.

“It’s the same situation Norwegian students benefited from when they were able to study abroad after World War II,” Fquihi said.

“We know that there will be a significant drop of international students in Norway, and that many study programmes will close. But there are no numbers to quantify the long-lasting value of internationalisation in higher education … By that, I mean the personal development of intercultural competence for Norwegian students who experience ‘internationalisation at home’ through interaction with international students not just in their classes but on their campuses.”

Ole Petter Ottersen, rector at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said there was a need for a broader perspective.

“Norway has a high cost of living, speaks a language that is spoken by few and is located off the major road junctions in Europe. The only thing we can add to the pot is high academic quality and the absence of tuition fees,” he said. “We need the richness of perspectives that we get by having universities that are open to the world.”