Parliament votes to end free tuition for non-EU students

Ending years of intense political debate, Norway’s parliament voted this week to abolish the free-tuition policy for international students outside of the European Economic Area and Switzerland, leaving many people in the sector concerned about the future of the principle of free education.

It came as no surprise, but the parliamentary vote that took place on 9 June and officially ended the country’s provision of free university tuition to students outside of the European Economic Area and Switzerland was nonetheless met with disappointment and dismay.

The final tally was: 86 votes for the government proposal to end free tuition and 11 against. Those against came from the Red Party (4), The Liberal Party (Venstre) (3), The Green Party (2) and Christian Democratic Party. (2).

As expected, the vote essentially rubber-stamped the 6 June decision by the parliamentary committee on higher education and research to support the government’s proposal to introduce tuition fees for students from outside the EEA and Switzerland.

The support of the Socialist Left Party (SV) for the government’s proposal in the last round of voting was a particular focus of criticism.

MP Abid Raja, from Venstre, who was also a member of the parliamentary committee, told Norwegian newspaper VG that the Socialist Left Party is no longer a party for students.

Critical of what he said were the “many shifts in the policy” of the party, he accused it of contributing to ending free education in Norway and ensuring that only the children of the richest people from the global South can have a good education in Norway.

His sentiments were echoed by Emmanuel Ovon Babatunde, senior adviser in the Division of Research and Innovation at the University of Bergen, who told University World News he was shocked that the SV should support what he called a “disappointing, repressive, and discriminatory policy”.

“The shock of it all was that it has been supported by SV, a party that has stood for the weakest in the society,” said Babatunde, who is originally from Ghana and is himself a beneficiary of Norway’s free tuition programme.

Raja described the move as a “catastrophe” for Norwegian universities and university colleges.

“And by this the government has, with the support of the Socialist Left Party, the Conservative Party and the Progress Party, chosen to let Borten Moe [Norway’s research and higher education minister] continue his demolition of the academy.

“This is a dark day and a hair-raising day,” Raja said.

The Socialist Party claimed it was obliged by the national budget passed in December 2022 to support the government’s proposal (for which the budget had made provision).

However, its reluctance to support the move was reflected in two proposals: that the wording of the government proposal be changed to allow higher education institutions to decide whether or not to claim tuition fees; and to exempt collaborating country partners funded by the Panorama programme, a strategy for cooperation on research and higher education with Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea and the United States.

The two SV proposals were the subject of votes in both the parliamentary committee and in parliament. Both proposals were roundly defeated.

Raja said he feared that Norwegian higher education institutions will suffer from the new law for years to come: “They will lose good students, experience a deterioration of their economic situation, acquire a bad reputation internationally and have poorer diversity on campuses,” he said.

Red Party member and Committee Chair Hege Bae Nyholt told University World News she believed the decision lacks solidarity towards students from other countries and is an incorrect strategy for securing the competence that Norway needs.

“Norway is dependent on communication and contact across borders and that should not be a one-way traffic, which will now be more the case, and this will mean we lose important perspectives and competence,” she said.

Principle of free education

Nyhold also said she feared the decision would erode the principle of free education.

However, Himanshu Gulati, former secretary of state (2014-2017) and a member of the committee representing the right-wing Progress Party, disagreed and argued that while he supports the idea that higher education should be free, it should not be free for international students.

“Free education is a welfare good and such welfare provisions should be national and cannot be used by all international students,” Gulati wrote in his comments on the proposal, which now seems to represent the view of the Norwegian parliamentary majority.

Lars Olav Grøvik, president of the Norwegian Society of Graduate Technical and Scientific Professionals, which has more than 100,000 members, also raised concerns about erosion of the principle of free Norwegian education and said the move would weaken the quality of higher education.

“Many of the international students take a doctorate degree and hence contribute to us recruiting more teachers and researchers in higher education. The proposal of full tuition fees will weaken recruitment of the best people,” Grøvik said.

President of the Norwegian Union of Researchers, Guro Lind told University World News the parliament had made an “unwise” decision that would have an “unjust” impact on international students from poorer countries.

“Internationalisation is fundamental for good research and higher education, and international students make the Norwegian academy richer. In addition, it is unjust that students from poorer countries are locked out. That some international students from poorer countries have been able to study in Norway has contributed to democracy and development.

“The majority in parliament is choosing to break the principle of free education in Norway. This is a sad decision. In addition, the decision is a clear break with the governmental declaration.”

Lind said the whole process towards the decision was open to criticism.

Student view

Official student representatives expressed disappointment over the decision.

In a press release on 7 June, the European Students’ Union (ESU) said it denounced “the end of free education in Norway”.

ESU president Matteo Vespa is quoted as saying: “This is a tragic day for equal rights to education. The continuing trend of abolishing free access to education in Europe is deeply concerning. ESU reiterates that education is a fundamental human right irrespective of one’s origin.

“It [the decision] furthermore creates great uncertainty for the international students that have already applied for this academic year, adding even another layer of irresponsibility to what is already a bad political choice.”

The impact of the decision on higher education institutions is already being felt.

According to the head of the office of international relations at the University of Stavanger Bjarte Hoem, as of 8 June – two days before the deadline for applications – 40 prospective international students had paid tuition fees at the University of Stavanger.

“This is somewhat higher than expected but still only 14% of last year’s admittance,” said Hoem.

“At the same time, we think that the level of the tuition fees has influenced the choice of students … The government has made it clear that the tuition fees are to cover all direct and indirect costs over time in the study programmes (including research, infrastructure, etc).
“Our costs were based on marginal costs and the price level in the European higher education market. That is lower than all direct and indirect costs over time.”

The end of an era

The decision effectively ends an era of support by Norway’s higher education sector for international students from the Global South, support which received an official boost in 1993 with the government’s establishment of the quota programme which admitted 1,100 students each year.

While tuition was covered by the programme, grants for living costs were levied when the students returned home after graduation. The programme attracted thousands of applicants and those accepted had good qualifications.

In 2016, the quota programme was effectively cut back by former minister of education and research Kristin Clemet and became known as the Panorama Strategy. The new programme accepted only a fraction of students accepted by its predecessor.

During the post-World War II years, half of Norwegian students studied abroad. And even today, oil-rich Norway educates half of its medical doctors in other countries. Against this backdrop, accepting students from the Global South was regarded by many as a ‘pay-back time’ for Norway.

Real-life impact

Randi Haaland, professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of Bergen, conducted a survey in 2019 of 27 doctoral and master’s degree candidates who had graduated with her as a supervisor in the Quota Scheme programme. Many of them now hold high-level positions in museums, universities and cultural heritage institutions in Africa.

“I often receive invitations to attend conferences in countries abroad from former students in deep appreciation of the competence gained, which has changed their lives,” Haaland told University World News this week.

Babatunde described the programme as “one of the best higher educational programmes in Europe”.

“It was nondiscriminatory because it was purely based on merit. The best students were admitted, and Norway got the best out of the best students. Today the policy has gone to favour the ‘dogs’ – the rich and corrupt politicians who plunder the resources of the developing world,” he said.

“I am a product of the free system and would never have had the chance to take a higher degree in Europe if l had to pay for tuition. Today the rector and the university director of Ghana's premier University, the University of Ghana, Legon are both women and both products of Norwegian higher education.

“Some heads of institutes, research leaders, heads of governmental organisations in Ghana today are products of the Norwegian free educational system. About 90% of these come from poor families who would never have gotten the chance for a further education if tuition was [needed].

He called on all parties to “join hands to stop this onslaught on free education in Norway. The universities in Norway will be ‘poorer’ if this policy is implemented.”

Sunniva Whittaker, chair of Universities Norway, said while the change to the law came as "no surprise", it represents a "significant and negative change" in Norwegian educational policy.

"We fought this decision – but now that the bill is passed, we must do our utmost to ensure that the implementation is as smooth and cost efficient as possible. A good place to start will be to clarify exemptions for certain groups of students as has been done in Sweden and Denmark. There is also a need to establish scholarship schemes for international students as soon as possible," she said.