Foreign student tuition fee plan: How will the votes go?

Arguably the most topical issue in Norwegian higher education over the past year, the government’s proposal to introduce tuition fees for students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland, enters its final round this week, amid ongoing resistance from higher education stakeholders.

The proposal, which entails a change in the university law, excludes the following groups from paying tuition fees: a) foreign citizens who, according to international agreements, have the right to equal treatment as Norwegian citizens; b) foreign citizens that have the right to Norwegian government funding support in the same way as Norwegian citizens; c) doctoral students; and d) students that are included in institutional exchange agreements. In the latter category the institutions may claim tuition fees if this is included in the institutional agreement.

The proposal from the ministry was finalised in the wake of comments from more than one hundred higher education institutions, all of which recommended that the ministry either drop the proposal completely or delay its implementation for one to two years.

Many of the institutional proposals asked for the introduction of grants to support some of the students, particularly those coming from the Global South.

The government’s plan to introduce tuition fees for students outside the EEA and Switzerland was approved as part of the national budget for 2023, endorsed by the majority of parliament in December 2022, including the Socialist Left Party whose support the minority Labour/Centre Party government is dependent upon for a majority.

The idea to introduce tuition fees is supported from outside the coalition government only by the Conservative Party, but if the Socialist Left Party does not support it during the full parliamentary discussion, it cannot go through.

Delays in vote

The 13-member parliamentary committee for education and research received the fee proposal from the ministry on 24 March and was scheduled to deliver a recommendation on the issue by 16 May in order for the proposal to be debated in parliament on 23 May. However, because the committee could not reach an agreement, it is now scheduled for a vote in parliament on 9 June.

No details on the deliberations in the committee have been published. However, Khrono reported, after talking to members of the committee, that the group was working on modifying aspects of the proposal, in particular the funding of grants for students from outside the EEA and Switzerland to prevent negative consequences for higher education programmes in Norway that have been attracting significant numbers of students who will now have to pay tuition fees.

Dag-Inge Ulstein from the Christian People’s Party, who was Minister of International Development from 2019 to 2021, told Khrono it was easy to understand the committee’s need for more time. While not a member of the committee, chaired by Hege Bae Nyholt of the left-wing Red Party (which is against tuition fees), Ulstein has followed the issue closely on behalf of his party and has held meetings with representatives from students and universities on the matter.

He accused the parties to the coalition government of contradicting their own policies on higher education through the proposal to introduce fees to foreign students.

“When the party programmes of both the Labour Party and the Center Party and the governmental platforms are crystal clear on the issue, how can people trust them when they are going against their own policy?” he asked.

“The government obviously has a strong longing to pursue the policy of the Conservatives and the People’s Party, which to me is absurd,” he said.

Ulstein said that half of the Left Socialist Party is strongly against the introduction of tuition fees. “We have to hope that the new round of political deliberations leads to the scrapping of the proposal,” he said.

Member of the committee for the Labour Party Lise Selnes told Khrono she is looking at how the tuition fees will be “framed”.

“It is one thing to introduce fees, but the question is also how the fees can be matched by grant arrangements, which exemptions can be given, and how tuition fees are set,” she said.

Concerns about implementation

Meanwhile, the delay in the parliamentary discussion over the issue is heightening existing concerns about implementation.

“The delay in the case of the tuition fees is making it totally unrealistic to proceed though the present process in an orderly way before studies start,” said Professor Curt Rice, outgoing rector of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

“International students will have to apply for visas long before June and the Migration Agency will have to know what rules and regulations are valid. There are already chaotic processes around the payment of the tuition fees and the delays are now making it totally unrealistic to proceed with the ongoing processes [for admission] in an orderly way before August,” Rice said.

The current situation is that the higher education institutions are required to proceed with claiming tuition fees from those students that are obliged to pay.

University World News asked institutions and other stakeholders whether the current uncertainty over the outcome of the parliamentary debate might not create problems – not only for the institutions, but for the international students too.

Head of the office of international relations at the University of Stavanger Bjarte Hoem said: “In line with the other universities we are claiming tuition fees according to the law proposition of the government. Even if the propositions are still not endorsed by the parliament, the signals from the ministry have been very clear that there will be no delay and that the law ‘for all practical purposes’ was decided upon in parliament when the budget for 2023 was passed. The deadline for payment is June 10, 2023.”

Hoem said the university has decided upon a fee that is lower than the other major universities.

“The reason is that we have looked at the marginal costs and the European higher education market. In the proposition the government is making it clear that students from outside the EEA shall cover all indirect and direct costs over time. A masters degree in technology will be approximately NOK100,000 (US$9,059) more costly and we would be pricing ourselves out of the European market.”

The Norwegian Union of Students (NSO) accused the government of turning a deaf ear to students, universities and university colleges and the electorate’s opposition to the introduction of tuition fees for international students.

“All responses to the hearing have come out against the introduction of tuition fees. It is very inconsiderate of those elected by the people [to the parliament] not to listen to the feedback they are getting from their electorate, their own political promises and their own policy, NSO chair Maika Godal Dam told Uniforum.

The introduction of tuition fees is a mark of shame on Norway’s higher education policy and has no democratic foundation.”

She said it is very disappointing that the Labour Party is working through the ‘hobby horse’ of Ola Borten Moe.

Hasty process

Godal Dam told University World News there was no doubt that the fee introduction was being rushed by the ministry.

“This has created huge uncertainties for the students and the higher education institutions,” she said.

Vice-Rector for Education at the University of Oslo (UiO), Professor Bjørn Stensaker, echoed these concerns, saying the hasty process had led to “a number of suboptimal solutions – both with respect to how the tuition level is calculated, and all the administrative routines that need to be developed to collect and administer a tuition system.

“We decided to go on with this year`s admissions, having adapted this as we went along. Informing applicants about the process has been challenging, though, as we had little information on what the detailed arrangements would be. Offers have been sent out to those qualified, and we are currently waiting for their reply. Given the fee level we have ended up with, I must admit that I am not overly optimistic about the outcome,” he told University World News.

As of 5 June, UiO had managed to attract 51 international students who will pay tuition fees, five who have been exempted from fees and 10 who have been offered a conditional exemption, according to Stensaker.

“If we end up with tuition fees as a permanent arrangement, we do need more autonomy with respect to setting the tuition fee level, and we do need to have a national scheme for stipends [and] scholarships to support students.

“Norway is now entering a very competitive market where factors such as quality, reputation, price and relevance need to be balanced, and the current procedures for calculating fees, and the lack of stipends [and] scholarships, will make the Norwegian higher education system less attractive.”

Stensaker said at the University of Oslo international students are seen as an important element driving quality and diversity in the learning process of all students.

“Introducing tuition fees does not change our thinking here – but it might change the ways we enter into international institutional collaborations in the future. Such collaborations could impact whether tuition is charged, but they could also have a negative impact on student diversity, and our ambition of being an inclusive university.”

Professor Emeritus Ivar Bleiklie at the University of Bergen, who is an expert on higher education governance and has studied Norwegian higher education and research policies since the early 1990s, told University World News the proposal to introduce student fees for foreign students outside the EEA area “came abruptly without prior discussion and involvement of the higher education sector”.

“It is difficult to see how the implications of the proposal have been seriously considered either in the context of the political platform of the centre-left coalition government or in terms of the needs for higher education to plan ahead to determine the level of the study fees, possible reductions in student numbers and implications for the affected study programmes.

“Yet again, the minister for higher education has demonstrated how his proposals are based on consideration for media visibility and symbolic effects on potential voters with little regard for how the higher education sector, its planning processes and its students, are affected.”