Opposition mounts over government’s non-EU student fee plan

There has been a chorus of criticism – and some protest action – from students, academics, union leaders and politicians of the Norwegian government’s proposed measures and budget cuts that are perceived as a threat to the country’s higher education internationalisation agenda.

The measures include the introduction of university tuition fees for non-European students and cuts to grants for students seeking to study abroad.

On Wednesday 26 October, local media reported that student demonstrations against the proposed introduction of international student fees for students from outside the European Union and the European Economic Area (EU-EEA) were held in Oslo, Ås, Stavanger, Levanger, Bodø, Trondheim and Volda.

Arguing the need for economic discipline and to rectify an economic mess inherited from the former [Erna] Solberg government, Research and Higher Education Minister Ola Borten Moe’s ministry has cut the 2023 budget to higher education institutions by NOK74.4 million (US$7.2 million), which it estimates will be made up by universities through the imposition of fees on international students.

There are also proposed cuts to grants for Norwegian students seeking to study abroad and research collaboration programmes.

Borten Moe has consistently defended the moves as economically necessary – despite the fact that Norway is benefiting financially from the war in Ukraine which has caused a massive increase in the country’s energy export revenues.

Earlier this year Borten Moe forced the entire board of the Research Council of Norway to resign, accusing it of “irresponsible spending of funds they did not have”.

Opposition voices question whether his decisions are financially or ideologically motivated since the government’s ‘flexible and decentralised’ strategy for higher education targeting those people unable to study full time on a campus has in fact received a 2023 budget injection of close to NOK100 million.

Broken promises

At the annual meeting of the Liberal Party of Norway (Venstre) on 9 October, Abid Raja, who is deputy chair of the party and former minister of culture, criticised Borten Moe for breaking prior promises by the government platform not to introduce tuition fees for non-European students or reduce grants for Norwegian students studying abroad.

In a discussion on a news programme of the Norwegian broadcaster later that week, Raja, who has a law degree and studied in Southampton and Oxford, said he would never have managed to study abroad without the grants he received from the government.

Hitting back, Borten Moe has accused Raja and his party, when they were part of the Solberg government, of being co-responsible for reducing the opportunities Norwegian students had to study at elite universities abroad by reducing from 147 to 75 the number of elite universities abroad at which Norwegian students could study and be eligible for an extra grant.

Political opposition extends beyond the Liberal Party, however. Quoted in the Adresseavisen newspaper on 25 October, MP for the Socialist Left Party (SV) Lars Haltbrekken said his party would not support the government proposal for tuition fees.

Since the minority government needs SV support, the proposal might again fail.

“We are strongly against this cut that is a break with the governmental platform [which the SV supported], which will hit students from poorer countries in particular. Many of them are coming here to study, for instance, renewable energy that is key to welfare development in their countries”, Haltbrekken said.

Research collaboration

Outside of political circles, critics of Borten Moe’s recent measures include Guro Elisabeth Lind, leader of the Norwegian Association of Researchers (Forskerforbundet). Writing in Forskerforum earlier this month, she called for the cuts to international research collaboration and higher education budgets to be stopped.

In addition to the cut to universities’ budget of NOK74.4 million (to be made up by non-European students paying tuition fees), these proposed cuts include: a reduction of NOK120 million in grants to Norwegian students studying abroad; a cut of NOK20.6 million for the Norwegian Partnership Programme for Global Academic Cooperation (NORPART) and the UTFORSK Partnership Programme, and cuts in travel support for Norwegian universities of NOK213 million.

“Together, these cuts are close to half a billion Norwegian kroner [US$48 million] which will significantly weaken Norwegian higher education and research,” Lind wrote.

She said the cuts would make it “practically impossible for students from poor countries” to study in Norway.

“Can one of the richest countries in the world no longer afford to show international solidarity?” she asked.

“Research is global and the development of knowledge happens through international cooperation. These cuts are weakening international collaboration,” she wrote.

According to the annual report of the Norwegian government loan board, the average debt of a student graduating in Norway in 2021 was NOK378,000 while the average debt of a student having studied abroad was NOK641,000, 70% more.

“More than 900 Norwegian students ended up with a loan of more than NOK1 million [US$97,000] in 2021, the majority of these having studied abroad. Ten years ago, only one student had a loan of more than NOK1 million,” said the report.

Study abroad

President of the Association of Norwegian Students Abroad (ANSA) Anna Handal Hellesnes said the association is “worried that the proposed reduction in grants to students studying abroad will result in fewer Norwegian students having that opportunity”.

She said ANSA had been contacted by students and parents of students who are worried about how the proposed cuts would affect them.

“We know that some students are at the breaking point of what economic burdens they can manage and take on in order to study,” she told University World News.

“We know that knowledge is global, and the Norwegian governmental strategies such as the e-Mobility White Paper [Mobilitetsmeldingen] and the Panorama Strategy highlight the value and importance of international cooperation in education.

“Thus, we are worried and disappointed that the Norwegian government now suggests that the individual student should carry a greater burden through increased loans from choosing to study abroad – which the governmental strategies highlight the value and importance of,” Handal Hellesnes said.

An ‘embarrassing proposition’

Several Norwegian academics have been outspoken on the government’s proposal, particularly regarding fees for international students.

On Facebook, Curt Rice, rector of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), who attended a demonstration by NMBU students and employees on Wednesday, accused the Norwegian prime minister of “followership, not leadership”.

“You can be better than this! Lead! Lead your government and lead in the world,” he wrote.

Highlighting Norway’s profits from the war in Ukraine, he said: “NOK3,500 million! Every day! Extra! And what is our response to that? Put it in a fund. Don’t share it with anyone. And start charging most foreign students!”

Earlier this month, three health scientists – Bente Moen and Anne Hatløy (University of Bergen) and Jon Ø Odland (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) – described the proposal to introduce fees for non-Europeans as “an incredibly embarrassing proposition” in an article in Khrono.

“The world’s richest country demands payment from its weakest and most vulnerable student groups, and lets rich Europeans off the hook? We cannot be privy to such a proposal,” wrote the academics, all of whom are involved in offering health education masters degrees in which a number of students from the Global South participate.

“Knowledge of how to solve some of the major global health challenges is more important than ever. In a globalised world, global health is an important common good for both poor and rich countries. Norway should continue to be an important contributor to spreading knowledge, and immediately remove this proposal on tuition fees for foreign students in Norway,” they argued.

Professor Vladimir Tikhonov, a professor at the University in Oslo, wrote in Forskerforum on 20 October: “Most [students from the Global South] do not only want to have a Norwegian higher education. They also wish to study and live for some years in a country with freedom to read, write and mean what you want. They could have this wish fulfilled because they were accepted by the tuition-free principle in the Norwegian higher education system.

“If they were required to pay tuition fees, they never could have come here to experience democracy and intellectual freedom,” he argued.

“Now, my international students are asking me how a country like Norway with one of the highest living standards in the world, and with additional incomes in the present global crises and with a left-leaning government that is always talking about human rights and solidarity … how can this government establish a ‘paywall’ that will make it impossible for resource-poor foreign students to come here. And what shall I answer them?”

An act of solidarity

Professor Bjørn Stensaker, vice-rector for education at the University of Oslo, said the government’s proposal was not in line with earlier policies relating to the internationalisation of higher education in Norway.

“The new proposal argues the need to save money. Previous policies – not least those aiming at sending Norwegian students abroad – have been grounded on arguments related to quality. Why should the quality argument not relate to both incoming and outgoing students?

“In a time where we see a new and more dangerous geopolitical order – and where knowledge development is suffering from increasingly closed borders between countries – having an open system which is tuition-free, also for students from outside Europe, is an act of solidarity, related to the students, but also related to knowledge exchange.”

At a meeting with student representatives on 18 October, Borten Moe and the Ministry of Education and Research reiterated the argument that the Norwegian economy was “under pressure” and that there was a “strong need for reduced government spending”.

During a 40-minute presentation, Borten Moe said the government was also expanding higher education across the whole country. It was funding 80 new study places in medicine in Tromsø at a cost of NOK100 million and 40 new study places in nuclear physics and chemistry, he said.

On accusations that Norway is failing the world’s poorest students, Borten Moe said: “There are many arguments for the introduction of tuition fees for countries outside the European Economic Area. But to claim that this shall be effective as an instrument to combat poverty in the Global South – that is definitively wrong, simply because Norway is an expensive country to live in and you have to deposit a significant amount of money in the bank [NOK128,800 per year to guarantee living costs].

“So we are not reaching out to the poor regions of the world in that way today.”

The case of Sweden

Critics of the fee proposal have cited the case of Sweden which introduced tuition fees and subsequently lost 80% of its international students from outside the EU-EEA in one year.

In parliament on 14 October, Dag Inge Ulstein of the Christian Democratic Party (KrF) asked whether the government would consider offering grants to international students in order to facilitate their studies in Norway.

“The experiences from Sweden show that extremely few from poor countries came to Sweden unless they had a grant. As the government now is introducing tuition fees, will the government strengthen the grant arrangements or in other ways secure recruitment of students that do not have the resources needed to come to Norway to study?” he asked.

Responding to the question on 20 October, Borten Moe said: “The economic situation demands some clear-cut priorities in the budget, and the introduction of tuition fees for students from outside the EU and the EEA is one of these priorities.

“We are introducing tuition fees now, and then we will look at the complete picture and evaluate the arrangements when it has worked for some time. Then it may be an actual policy to look upon eventual grant arrangements.”