Universities criticise Sub-Saharan scholarships plan

Academics and researchers say the Norwegian government’s plan to offer only 200 scholarship grants targeting two-year masters students mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa is an inadequate and too narrowly focused response to the fall in international student numbers since tuition fees were introduced this year for students from outside Europe.

The Norwegian Researchers’ Association, for instance, argues that the programme prioritises development aid at the expense of international academic collaboration and the development of skills needed by the Norwegian economy.

According to a news report by Khrono, the University of Agder (UiA) summed up what most universities and university colleges in Norway think about the grants when it said: “The scholarship scheme is a very small plaster on a big wound.”

The proposed grant system, valued at NOK35 million (US$3,17 million) for the first year, will cover tuition and living costs.

According to the outline, the plan, which is being circulated for consultation, is aimed at students from the Global South “in line with the ambition to fight inequality and combat poverty” and will make a positive contribution towards a number of UN Sustainable Development Goals.


According to the outline, up to 200 grants are to be directed primarily towards students from official development assistance (ODA) countries south of the Sahara, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mali, DR Kongo, Niger, Somalia and South-Sudan.

The grants are intended to have a developmental aid effect although the proposal makes it possible for universities to allocate a small number of grants to students in vulnerable circumstances from ODA countries not on the priority list.

All students would be expected to return to their home countries on completion of their degrees so that the skills and knowledge gained benefit the home country rather. Otherwise scholarships could simply take talent out of the country causing brain drain, the outline explains.

The outline says before the full proposal for the scheme is drawn up “it must also be assessed whether returning to the home country after completing education in Norway can or should be required for the students covered by the programme”.

It also concedes that any “requirement to return, and enforcement thereof, are, however, demanding and involve a number of practical, but also ethical aspects”.

A similar concern applies to requirements for the student to have a connection to an educational institution in the home country – with the aim of strengthening cooperation between the home institution and the host institution – or requirements for a permanent employment relationship so that they can return to a job.

The grants are to be awarded only to students in the fields of food security, climate and environment, renewable energy, women rights, inequality, peace and reconciliation and global health.

They are also intended to address Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Quality Education), in particular, subcategory 4b that specifically calls for an increase in the number of grants to students from developing countries seeking higher education in developed countries.

Consultation process

The Directorate of Higher Education and Skills (HK-dir) and the Directorate for Development Collaboration gave universities eight days (from 10-18 October) to comment on the proposed grants.

Minister of Higher Education and Research Sandra Borch told VG-Verdens Gang newspaper the plan was a “very good investment”.

“International students are a resource for Norwegian universities, and we want to cater for those students that do not have the possibility to get higher education,” she said.

Minister of International Development and Minister of Nordic Cooperation Anne Beathe Tvinnereim described it as an “important development policy” that would allow students to study in Norway and take back important competence to their home countries.

However, universities are seeking a broader initiative to rebuild inward international student flows, and as Khrono has reported, are concerned that there are too few scholarships; that the proposed system is a narrowly focused on aid to Sub-Saharan Africa rather than on broad international knowledge cooperation with a diverse range of countries; and that the specified choice of topics for masters programmes is too limited.

In its submission to the government, Universities Norway (UHR), represented by Chair of the University Board Sunniva Whittaker and Secretary-general Nina Sandberg, said: “UHR wants to stress that this grant programme in no way covers the need … in the long term, it should be assessed whether the scholarship program can be expanded with the number of students and countries.

“After tuition fees were introduced for students outside the EEA and Switzerland, the number of international students has fallen sharply, more than the government assumed. It is unfortunate both for those students who miss the opportunity to study in Norway and for the Norwegian students and professional communities in Norway.”

UHR also said Norwegian institutions should be able to choose a study programme that will be part of the scholarship programme. “The offers must be in line with the institutions’ professional priorities and autonomy, in addition to the students’ choices and needs in their home country,” it said in reference to the limited disciplinary areas covered by the grants.

The UHR submission said Norway “must have international knowledge cooperation with a diverse range of countries” which called for “several scholarship schemes”.

It said: “The proposed scholarship scheme must be expanded and supplemented, and the HE sector must be involved in the design and organisation of future scholarship schemes.”


Chair of the Norwegian Association of Researchers Guro Lind and secretary-general Birgitte Olafsen told the Directorate for Higher Education and Skills in the association’s submission it was sceptical about the proposal of requiring return to their home country upon graduation.

They said the masters graduates were “part of the academy” and should contribute to research.

“Research is international, and international masters students are an important part of further recruitment to research.” They said it was “illogical” that students should be required to return to their home countries upon graduation.

“The requirement of return raises both practical, legal, and ethical challenges,” they wrote. “There can be many reasons why a student would want to stay in Norway upon graduation. For instance, the conditions in the home country could change so that a return becomes difficult or impossible.”

The association referred to the Students-at-Risk programme where there is an expectation but not a demand that the student shall return to their homeland upon graduation.

Professor Bjørn Stensaker, vice-rector for education at the University of Oslo, told University World News the proposal was linked to a “rather strict regulatory framework” that focused on a limited number of countries and thematic areas. He said the universities’ “own strategies and established partnerships seem to be of lesser importance”.

He said: "With the number of complex criteria and limitations suggested, it will be a lot of work for us to handle a very small number of scholarships. Personally, I think it is quite ironic that a government focusing on trust and less red tape in higher education is suggesting anything like this.”

‘A drop in the ocean’

Concerns over the small scale of the grant programme have been expressed by a number of academics.

Professor Rolee Aranya, based at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), and leader of the masters degree in urban ecological planning, told Universitetsavisa she did not view the proposed programme as a saviour.

“This will be a drop in the ocean,” she said. “We do not know how the NTNU will distribute the grants we get, but we hope some students will seek our study programme. If they will get a grant is not certain. This will create great expectations but satisfy few”, she said.

Student representatives have also questioned the limited number of scholarships.

President of the National Union of Students Oline Sæther said the union is pleased that the government is listening to requests for scholarships for international students from the sector. However, 200 grants was “far from enough”, she said, and called on the government to increase the number available and open them up to bachelor students as well.

National skills

University of Stavanger Professor Klaus Mohn told University World News his university alone admitted almost 400 international students each year before the introduction of tuition fees.

He said his institution was concerned that the programme did not compensate for national skills needs.

“Several of the masters degree programmes at the University of Stavanger cover areas in which industry and business have an extensive need for competence. The introduction of tuition fees has had a great, negative impact upon these sectors in several important fields of competence.”

The link between the grants and development aid has also been criticised.

According to Khrono the University of Agder (UiA) wrote in its submission to HK-dir that the aid focus means that development policy guidelines will weigh more heavily than the institutions' own considerations.

It is important that the new scheme does not come at the expense of cuts in funding for NORHED (programme for capacity development in higher education and research) and NORPART (Norwegian Partnership Programme for Global Academic Cooperation), UiA said, according to Khrono.

UiA also expressed concern about announcements that NOK175 million from the NORPART project, which were supposed to go to cooperation and student exchange with countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, have been stopped and that the scholarship programme will receive funds from NORPART.

The matter has been reported previously by University World News.

Geographical spread

Selma Bratberg, president of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund told University World News that while it was good that a grant programme was on the table, there was a need to “strengthen the suggested grant programme, by increasing both the number of grants and opening up for a wider geographical and thematic prioritisation”.

Bratberg said: “We believe the suggestion to only prioritise students from the ODA-countries south of Sahara, makes the program too narrow. We know that there’s a big need for this kind of scholarship programme but are concerned that the recruitment base will be too small when put together with the other suggested criteria in the program, like institutional affiliation, as well as the qualification requirements to Norwegian higher education.

“We also know that a number of Norwegian institutions have collaborations with institutions in other ODA countries, for example, University of South East Norway (USN) has a collaboration with an institution in India for the exchange of their nursing students, and OsloMet collaborates with an institution in Colombia for their bachelors in journalism. They should be able to recruit students from these institutions.”

Forum for dialogue

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, former rector of the University of Oslo and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and now acting secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities in Brussels, called for a forum for involving political authorities and higher education representatives to develop a “new initiative in a future-oriented way”.

Such a forum should also allow for the voices of the Global South to be heard, he said.

He said the grants were a signal that the authorities had realised the “unfortunate effects of a number of political decisions”, which, he said, started with the discontinuation of the quota programme for international mobility which, “in sum, have undermined global academic cooperation and contributed to maintaining the deep inequalities in the world by keeping out poor countries and communities”.

Ottersen said the new measure was “better than nothing” but must be scaled and structured in a different way if it was to compensate for “unfortunate” decisions.

“My proposal is that a forum for dialogue be created as soon as possible where the relevant political authorities meet representatives of our higher educational institutions so that we can develop the new initiative in a future-oriented way and where we can also hear voices from the Global South that attest to the importance of academic collaboration for global understanding and trust,” he said.