Universities struggle to implement new tuition fee ruling

Norwegian universities are struggling to implement the government’s decision to demand tuition fees from non-European students seeking to study in Norway this fall. Apart from logistical challenges, academics are concerned about the deeper impact of the move on the sector and international student enrolment.

Universities have specifically criticised the lack of guidance emanating from the government on how to handle the issue of tuition fees for students from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland who applied for a study place before the new tuition fee regime was approved by parliament in December 2022. Currently, there is no legal mechanism in place to accept fees from students.

Universities Norway (UHR), the union of Norwegian higher education institutions, is coordinating efforts among universities. In a recent letter to the education committee in parliament, UHR highlighted the fact that relevant information, notably on citizenship status, has not been requested from many of the international students applying for admission for the 2023-24 academic year which begins in August.

In December 2022, the UHR criticised the lack of clarity in the government’s plan, which comes without guidelines or resources, saying: “The government proposed a cut of NOK74.4 million [US$7 million] for 2023, based on the assumption that approximately 70% of the students will disappear, but this estimate is uncertain. The ministry’s calculations are neither transparent nor related to which students are in the target group for having to pay tuition fees.”

The budget cut is significantly higher than what universities are likely to collect in tuition fees for 2023 and universities are likely to suffer a financial deficit if the fees are not collected. While the ministry has acknowledged a lack of precision around the issue, it has indicated universities are to proceed with implementation of the proposal to charge fees to all students from outside the EEA in 2023.

Meanwhile, universities are doing their best to prepare, while also ensuring that they continue to provide high-quality education and support to all their students regardless of their financial background, and that there is no impact on accessibility of quality education in Norway.

Jørgen Melve, a senior executive officer in the faculty of social sciences and the head of the Norwegian Civil Service Union (NTL) at the University of Bergen and member of the academic board, criticised the Ministry of Education and Research, particularly the sector minister Ola Borten Moe, for making decisions without proper assessment.

Melve said that it is rare for a ministry to make such poorly founded decisions, adding that the ministry does not have a clear idea of how many students will be affected by the new tuition fees and how much a study place will cost.

In a statement on 10 March published in Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, head of UHR Professor Sunniva Whittaker expressed concern that the government’s poorly executed decision may deter international students from coming to Norway this year.

Calls for a delay in implementation

The UHR has called for a delay in the introduction of tuition fees, citing the need for more time to develop appropriate procedures for handling the collection of fees and ensuring that the rights of students are safeguarded. The union has also raised concerns about the potential cost of implementing tuition fees, and the impact this could have on the higher education sector at a time when other priorities should take precedence.

Norwegian universities are applying their minds to the issue in different ways.

A statement arising out of a meeting on 7 March of the University of Oslo (UiO) board stated: “The claiming of tuition fees and the administration of these make it necessary for UiO to develop routines for the handling of this external income. We need a procedure for the collection of fees, including which kind of payment solutions the students will use.

“We are planning for a system that will allow students to make part payments of the fees before coming to Norway to allow them to have a residence permit for studies in Norway.

“The Directorate of Immigration (UDI) needs to provide clear guidance on how proof of ability to pay tuition fees should be interpreted in conjunction with the requirement to demonstrate adequate funding for living expenses.

“Meanwhile, UiO is responsible for examining and establishing local policies related to payment deadlines, reduced academic progress, illness-related implications and consequences of failure to pay tuition fees, which must be incorporated into the university’s study regulations.”

In the absence of clear guidance from the government, UiO has adopted an institutional pricing model for tuition fees for 2023 which has six categories of fees, ranging from NOK130,000 (US$12,300) to NOK500,000 per year (US$47,500). These are:

• Category F: NOK130,000 per year (bachelor degree studies in humanities, social sciences, economics and political science);

• Category E: NOK160,000 per year (studies in law and the natural sciences);

• Category D: NOK180,000 per year (masters degree studies in the humanities, social sciences teacher training);

• Category C: NOK260,000 per year (masters level studies in natural sciences and technology);

• Category B: NOK380,000 per year (professional degree in psychology and pharmacy); and

• Category A: NOK500,000 per year (professional degree in medicine and dentistry).

Although he has called for a transition period to ease the implementation process, UiO Rector Svein Stølen has acknowledged that the Ministry of Education and Research expects the system to be implemented by 2023-24 and has made it clear that it is the responsibility of institutions to ensure compliance.

In a recent debate article published in UNIFORUM, however, Stølen questioned the impact of the new national policy on an internationally oriented university. Stølen said it was challenging to explain to international partners what is going on in Norway, “particularly when we see the performance and the current state of the Norwegian economy amid the ongoing war in Ukraine”.

Via Twitter, Stølen said: “I have few problems with students from high-income countries having to pay, but the real problem is with us not [being] willing to have students from low-income countries. International solidarity is needed now more than ever.”

University of Bergen: ‘Devastating consequences’

In contrast to UiO, the board of the University of Bergen has unanimously instructed the university leadership to take all necessary measures to prevent the implementation of tuition fees.

This decision was motivated by what the board perceived as the potentially devastating consequences of such fees and the lack of a solid knowledge base to support their implementation, according to Khrono reports from the meeting held on 8 March.

“We, along with the rest of the sector, are very concerned about the introduction of tuition fees for international students. These students have helped us build valuable networks and partnerships, and we are unsure how to implement these fees in a fair and secure manner,” stated the university’s pro-rector, Professor Pinar Heggernes.

The University of Bergen has estimated that a masters degree will cost NOK366,000 (US$34,700), but the final sum is uncertain.

“We have attempted to engage in dialogue with the Ministry of Education and Research, but we are encountering obstacles. There appears to be a lack of clarity between the ministry and its political leadership, which makes it difficult to determine an appropriate pricing strategy. If we set the price too low, we risk facing further budget cuts. However, we have observed that some other institutions have set their prices lower.”

University of Bergen Rector Professor Margareth Hagen has stated that despite the lack of clarity surrounding the introduction of tuition fees, the university has made every effort to keep applicants informed. However, she said 2,500 out of 3,500 applicants have withdrawn their applications for the autumn of 2023.

The University of Bergen typically admits around 100 international students from outside the EU or EEA and Switzerland to its two-year masters programmes each year.

Hagen criticised the government for its “hasty work” and pointed out that if the fees had been introduced just over a year ago, there would be no Ukrainian students in Bergen except for those who were admitted as refugees.

“We cannot predict where conflicts will arise next, or what kind of global network Norway will need in the future. We have a network of researchers in Africa who previously studied in Bergen and are now in influential positions and they are now contributing to important research in their home countries. This has implications for our research but also politically,” she said.

University of Stavanger: Economic impact

In a statement to University World News, the University of Stavanger (UiS) said the introduction of tuition fees for international students will “be a decision that will negatively impact Norway in the years to come” and could discourage talented students from considering Norway as a study destination, ultimately harming the country’s economy and workforce.

The university said several of its masters degree programmes were vital for meeting the competence needs of the region’s industry and business.

“Our masters degree in marine and offshore technology has been highly successful in providing students with the necessary knowledge and skills to excel in the industry. The programme provides students with knowledge in design techniques, construction, maintenance and removal of marine and offshore installations, such as floating wind turbines,” the statement said.

“As evidenced by the candidate surveys, 15 out of the 18 international masters degree candidates who completed their course in the spring of 2022 are now working in the Stavanger region including at Equinor, TechnipFMC, Subsea 7, Aibel, Ocean Installer and other small and medium size businesses.

“In the most recent survey conducted by UiS, we found that 56% of international graduates (from 2020-22) still live in the Stavanger region and only 16% had moved out of Norway, indicating that they see the value in staying and contributing to the local economy.”

Furthermore, 83% of employed graduates stated that a masters degree was required for their current position, highlighting the importance and relevance of UiS’s programmes.

“A similar survey conducted by Rambøll Management Consulting in 2021 also shows that our programmes have a global reach, with 75% of graduates who previously lived outside of Europe now residing in Norway,” the statement said.

“We would like to highlight the significant contributions that international masters degree students make to the Norwegian economy and society. Students coming from countries outside the EEA and Switzerland are relatively inexpensive for Norway as they do not have to pay for basic education or the foreign degree that forms the basis for admission to a masters degree programme. Upon graduation, they enter the Norwegian labour market and contribute to value creation and tax revenue.”

A poverty of perspectives

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, a former rector at the University of Oslo and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and now a professor in the faculty of medicine at Oslo, told University World News that in a world of conflict where trust and mutual understanding between countries are more in need than ever before, there was no rationality in introducing barriers that hinder the movement of students and knowledge across countries.

“And what is even worse is that this is a new turn in a process that is reducing the richness of perspectives at the campus. We need the perspectives from the low-income countries, and this is a win-win situation when looking at what we have contributed to the building of capacity in these countries.

Ottersen said when Norway scrapped the Quota Scheme for international mobility in 2015, hundreds of scholarships for foreign students fell away. “This will be a new turn in that direction,” he said.

A tight implementation schedule

André Bryntesson, research coordinator at the Swedish Centre for Studies of the Internationalisation of Higher Education at Uppsala University, who has done research on the effects of tuition fees, told University World News the introduction of tuition fees required a lot of administrative structures to be in place and said the government was pushing a “tight” implementation schedule.

Bryntesson said: “There are of course the technological and financial structures for payments, but also the administrative support for staff and students using the system, a legal framework to assign the right competencies to the institutions and to deal with complaints, as well as systems for evaluating proofs of citizenship and identifying potential exemptions.

“There is also the issue of setting the fees. Are there going to be both application fees and tuition fees? If so, at what level should they be set? What different fee models are there in other countries, and how have they worked out?

“Since international students often apply very early during the year and receive their letters of acceptance quite early during spring for the coming autumn semester, an early process can often be advantageous.

“Students need predictability when making decisions on where in the world to spend the next one to five years of their lives. How does one ensure that they do not opt to go to another country simply because it takes too long to get the information on acceptance, tuition fees and scholarships from Norway?”

In order to ameliorate the disruption for higher education institutions, Bryntesson said there should ideally be a financial cushioning to compensate for the sudden drop in student numbers, coupled with scholarship programmes and international advertising and recruitment efforts to ensure that study programmes that rely on international recruitment can continue to be offered.

“In other words, how does one ensure that higher education institutions can maintain programme structures and staff in place despite very few students so that they are ready when student numbers are expected to start increasing again?” he asked.

Bryntesson said scholarship programmes should ideally be in place early so that students know whether to pick Norway over another country that has already offered them a study place and potentially a scholarship.

“As far as I am aware, the Norwegian government has not even conducted a proper examination of the economic costs and benefits of introducing tuition fees, nor made a marginal cost estimation of receiving international students to identify at what level fees would have to be set in order for Norwegian higher education to break even. If the goal is instead to maximise the profit derived from international students, calculations for that would have to be made.

“Given all of this, it certainly seems to me like the Norwegian government is pushing a very tight implementation schedule,” Bryntesson said.