Public hearing shows poor support for non-EU tuition fees

The majority of Norway’s universities have rejected the proposal to introduce tuition fees for students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland (so-called third countries) in comments submitted during a public consultation process or hearing, which closed on 7 December.

Altogether, 87 separate submissions were made by ministries, a municipality, worker and employer organisations, professional and student bodies, public agencies, higher education institutions and individuals (including this writer). Several individuals did not give their names and frequently commented on the difficulties that tuition fees would present to partners of Norwegians who originate from outside the country.

Approximately 27% (24) submissions were made by research and teaching institutions.

Among the higher education institutions, the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) supported the proposal to introduce fees but said the introduction of tuition fees for third-country students would “trigger a need to develop an effective and reliable scholarship scheme for this group”.

Three external members of the university board of the University of Oslo also voted against the majority proposal but stipulated that the proposal should be supported with grants.

As reported by University World News, there has been an intense debate on the introduction of tuition fees ever since it was proposed by the government on 10 October 2022.

Despite a lack of majority support for the move, the fee proposal found its way into the budget agreement the government negotiated with the Socialist Left Party in late November. However, to implement the tuition fee proposal, university legislation must be changed, which requires a majority in parliament.

Overlooked issues

Most of the criticisms of the proposed fees argue that important issues have not been accounted for in the government’s proposal.

In its submission, the Ministry of Justice argued that consideration had not been given to the impact of introducing tuition fees on the requirement that residence permit applicants should be able to support themselves economically.

“When deciding if a residence permit shall be given, there is a requirement of being able to support yourself economically and, according to the regulations of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, an applicant must document funds equal to the full support from the Government Student Loan.

“If a student shall pay tuition fees, this funding has to come in addition to the support requirements. We cannot see that the impact that introducing tuition fees has upon the support requirements has been sufficiently accounted for in the hearing notes,” it said.

Universities Norway (UHR) also argued that the proposal makes several assumptions that are not substantiated. For example, it said, the proposal notes that the introduction of tuition fees will make resources available that will improve access to higher education for Norwegian students and students from other EEA countries.

“The introduction of tuition fees is followed by a cut in the funding of the universities. It is hence difficult to see how this will make resources available for the targeted students. In addition, very little is said about the consequences for international diversity and solidarity with poorer countries.

“The economic and administrative consequences are not well enough accounted for either. UHR is critical of a budget cut to the sector before the issue is finalised in parliament and the required legal change is decided upon,” UHR’s submission stated.

In its own submission, the University of Oslo argued that the ministry had not “sufficiently accounted for the relationship between [the proposed] tuition fees and the regulations of government universities and university colleges concerning collaboration (the grant- and commission-funded or BOA activities) and, within these regulations, whether educational programmes offered to a global market that are to be financed by tuition fees will be classified as sales.

“It would be particularly unfortunate if studies that are adapted to fit students from the Global South should demand higher tuition fees to be in accordance with the governmental funding,” it said.

Funding model

The University of Bergen said it was in principle against tuition fees for international students and asked the ministry to reconsider its proposal.

Rector Margareth Hagen wrote: “If the proposal stands, the University of Bergen will ask for a more thorough analysis of the consequences of the proposal before the tuition fees are introduced, and if parliament in spite of this decides to introduce the fees, we will ask the ministry to clarify the funding model that tuition fees are going to be based on.”

The Norwegian Association of Researchers described the proposal as “rushed” and argued that a thorough investigation into the consequences of the fees was lacking, particularly given the fact that experience from other countries suggests that a large number of international students will be deterred by the new plan.

“And in addition to this, neither the level of tuition fees, the costs of administering the fees and the impact upon international recruitment or international collaboration are sufficiently covered … The Norwegian Association of Researchers regrets that the government is planning to introduce tuition fees from autumn 2023 and is of the opinion that this decision is taken on a weak foundation and is threatening core values in Norwegian higher education,” the association wrote.

An end to the free education principle – for everyone

The National Union of Students in Norway (NSO) said because free higher education was a fundamental principle in Norwegian higher education, the introduction of tuition fees for one group would end the free education principle.

“Talents and knowledge and not your wallet should decide who shall have the right to higher education in Norway … When the door for introducing tuition fees is opened, the NSO fears that it will only be a question of time before other student groups are told to pay tuition fees,” the NSO wrote.

The NSO also criticised the way the ministry based the proposal solely on calculations of the income higher education institutions could make through the introduction of fees. “We see that our neighbouring countries have had to use considerable funding on administration and marketing and grant arrangements,” said the NSO submission.

Chair of the Board of Universities Norway, Professor Sunniva Whittaker, told University World News the introduction of fees from third country students was a “breach” of the government’s promises on its own political platform.

“This decision is of particular concern when it comes to Norwegian cooperation with the Global South. It has created significant uncertainties for applicants who are considering studying in Norway.

“The international students are an important contribution to the diversity of Norwegian academia. They provide new perspectives and increase the quality of education. Fewer international students could also result in several masters programmes that are highly relevant to Norwegian society being discontinued,” she said.

Lack of professionalism

Via Facebook, Professor Curt Rice, rector at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), said his position on the issue was “well-known and completely in line with the rest of the higher ed[ucation] sector”.

However, putting that aside, he said the implementation process needed to be carried out in a much more professional way than it has been thus far.

“The ministry is putting us in a position where we’ll admit foreign students in February and confirm to them that there will be tuition fees, but we won’t be able to say how much they will be.

“The cuts that the government has made will in no way be recoverable by tuition. At this point, the practical side – leaving the principles aside – is just not at an appropriate level of professionality.”

President of the Norwegian Association of Researchers Guro Lind told University World News the introduction of fees would make it impossible for students from poor countries to study in Norway.

“That students from poorer countries have been able to study in Norway without having to pay tuition fees has contributed to essential competence in countries in the South, but also to new perspectives and impulses in Norwegian higher education. Now it will in practice be impossible for most students from poorer countries to study in Norway.

“The introduction of tuition fees is serious in itself. But the budget proposal also has three other significant cuts to international research and higher education. The total picture is of a government unable to see the importance of international collaboration,” Lind said.

“It is incomprehensible to understand and very disappointing that a majority in parliament, with the Labour Party, the Centre Party and the Socialist Left Party in front, is voting to remove the principle of free rights to education for all. This is a historical defeat for Norwegian educational policy,” Maika Marie Godal Dam, the president of NSO, said.