Universities uncertain in the face of impending fee regime

Norwegian universities are scrambling, without adequate information, to manage the applications of international students following the minister of research and higher education’s refusal to re-engage on the issue of tuition fees for international students due to come into effect later this year.

At a conference between the ministry of education and the higher education institutions on 10 January 2023 Minister Ola Borten Moe said it was not “fruitful” to take up the debate again on the introduction of fees for students outside the European Union-European Economic Area (EU-EEA) and Switzerland.

“A decision has been taken [in the budget negotiations in the parliament] and the government, the Conservative Party, the Socialist Left Party and the Progressive Party are in favour of this, so this will be worked through. It is not fruitful to take up this debate again,” said Moe.

He said that, if the sector does not manage to “find out how to price the tuition fees”, Moe himself and the ministry would “do the work for them in the first round”.

No money was set aside for a grant arrangement in 2023, so that has “eventually to come in the next round, and eventually instead of other measures”, he said, referring to calls for a grant system to support international students in lieu of free tuition.

Criticism and uncertainty

As reported by University World News, a call for comments from stakeholders, which closed on 7 December 2022, produced an overwhelming number of comments that were critical of the proposal and some which suggested that if such fees were introduced it would be necessary to institute a grant system for international students to limit the fall in numbers.

Confusion around exactly when the tuition fees will kick in stems from the fact that new legislation for the move is yet to be passed through parliament.

Speaking in parliament on 9 December 2022, Liberal Party representative Alfred Jens Bjørlo said he had been approached by many higher education institutions with study programmes attracting international students that are now worried about the viability of their programmes.

Bjørlo asked Moe how many masters degree programmes currently have over 20% of international students from outside the EU-EEA and asked if the minister had information on what would happen to these masters programmes come the autumn term of 2023.

Moe replied that Norway was a popular country for international students and that he wants it to continue to be popular. He said excluding masters degree study programmes with less than 10 students, the information he has is that 943 such programmes exist and that 190 of these have 20% or more students from outside the EU-EEA.

“These students are found all over Norway and include anyone who is not a Norwegian citizen and those with foreign citizenship that have had residence in Norway for a longer time. The proposal for introducing tuition fees has been on call and I will now analyse the answers received before we are setting the regulations.”

Confusion and disappointment

Moe’s comments on 10 January 2023 to the effect that he does not want a “re-match” on the tuition-fee issue was a wake-up call for the higher education institutions. But it also showed that many of the higher education institutions had not started to prepare for a tuition fee regime.

An article in Khrono published on 20 January 2023 was headlined: “Total confusion about what is happening with tuition fees.”

“The leaders of higher education institutions are characterising the situation as unclear and disappointing, and some institutions are now considering dropping their intake of international students,” according to the report.

The four larger Norwegian universities – Oslo, Bergen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU-Trondheim) and Tromsø – have set up a committee to work out how to calculate the tuition fees and their report is expected at the beginning of February.

Professor Bjørn Stensaker, vice-rector for education at the University of Oslo, said that there are so many unresolved issues and institutions do not know what to tell the students applying. He said it would have been better to suspend the implementation of the fees for a year, giving institutions the opportunity to prepare.

The deadline for applying for international students was 15 November 2022, while the decision in parliament was reached on 14 December 2022.

Prospective students in the dark

At the University of Oslo in 2021 there were 3,758 international applicants and in 2022 there were 4,159. Stensaker said many of the applicants have not even realised that they must pay tuition fees. He said the university informed applicants that tuition fees might be introduced but precise information has not been available.

“Many of the applicants are not engaged in the political process. They are interested in the study programmes and use the information available on internet pages… Many international applicants applied before the tuition fee issue was decided upon,” he said.

“With the introduction of tuition fees, we will need a revised strategy for internationalisation. The University of Oslo is a very internationally oriented university and maintaining and strengthening our profile here is important for us.”

Some institutions, such as MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society in Oslo, have simply suspended their bachelors degree intake, posting the following notice on their webpage:

“The Norwegian government has decided to introduce tuition fees for international students from outside the EU-EEA starting studies in Norway in August 2023. The amount of the fee is currently undecided, but may be up to NOK150,000 [US$150,200] per year. As a result of the increased tuition fee, the Bachelor in Theology, Religion and Society will no longer accept new applicants.”

What is clear is that students coming from outside the EU-EEA who start their studies after 1 August 2023 will have to pay tuition fees. These fees will have to be paid before 15 May 2023 – before residence visas for studies can be issued.

One problem for the higher education institutions is that they do not have an apparatus in place to handle the administration of tuition fees, and the processing of applications is made difficult because many of the applicants may not actually take up a study place upon realising they need to pay tuition fees.

Reduced budget allocations

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the ministry has reduced the budget allocations to all higher education institutions receiving non-EU-EEA students for 2023, based on an estimate of the number of students from these countries in the past. This has had consequences for university staff complements.

On 20 January 2023, University of Stavanger Rector Klaus Mohn wrote: “The news of a reduction of staff should not come as a surprise. We are now entering a period where we must readjust because our expenses no longer match our costs.”

“It is in particular the introduction of the tuition fee that is causing these problems,” Mohn added, stating that the annual loss to the University of Stavanger due to the tuition fee-related budget cuts is approximately NOK30 million (US$3.04 million).

Professor Sunniva Whittaker, rector of the University of Agder and chair of Universities Norway, told University World News: “We have voiced our clear opposition to the introduction of fees. Now that the fees will be implemented, we are concerned about how we can do it in a well organised and uniform way across the sector.

“We have had one meeting with university leadership across the board to coordinate a response and have followed up by requesting a meeting with the ministry in order to discuss the practical arrangements. We have not yet held that meeting but hope we can get together soon in order to iron these issues out.”

President for International Students Union (ISU) in Norway Amine Fquihi told University World News his union is still hoping the proposal would not be pursued.

“We at ISU are still hoping that this decision will get revoked. Such a decision will harm the efforts Norway has been making towards internationalisation and increasing international education collaboration.

“We believe that when the proposal for the introduction of tuition fees came last autumn, it was not clear and was dealt with in rush.”

A ‘highly problematic’ process

Asked whether he believed the decision to introduce the fees had been democratic, Abid Raja, Liberal Party MP and party deputy chair, and a former minister of culture and equality, said the government was within its rights to introduce tuition fees for international students in their budget proposal for 2023, “which a majority voted for in parliament”, he said.

However, he pointed to other “highly problematic” aspects of the process.

“First and foremost, both parties in government (Labour and Centre) and their budget partner in parliament (Left Socialist) explicitly said they are against tuition fees in their party manifestos. The government platform also states that ‘higher education in Norway will be free, including for international students’. Therefore, it came as a complete surprise.

“Even if it’s not formally undemocratic, introducing tuition fees means the government is operating completely unpredictably in what are already difficult times for the universities and colleges. It will result in higher costs for the institutions. It’s appalling, the way they have done this, without dialogue or previous warning.”

Asked to comment on the quality of communication to potential applicants abroad, he said: “The fees are being introduced very quickly, leaving little time for the universities and colleges to prepare. I’m sure this will affect how well potential applicants have been informed, as well.”