Fees leave Scandanavians cold

April 21, 2000

Senior civil servants from all of Scandinavia's ministries of higher education are agreed that the time is not ripe for the introduction of university tuition fees in the region.

Gathered in Iceland for a conference on future higher education financing, the officials said that fees would only become a reality if governments failed to back financially the general target of educating 50 per cent of young people to degree level.

They were receptive, however, to ideas for new sources of income for the mainly state-supported Scandinavian universities.

They were particularly concerned about the difficulties in getting industry, a growing sponsor for academic research, to fund teaching as well.

Opposition to fees, in a debate triggered by invited experts from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Canada, centred on the view that they would make higher education more elitist.

Scandinavians, burdened by some of the highest income taxes in the world, generally expect free education for their children and are not believed to support tuition fees on top of their tax bill.

Some educationists warned universities against naivety. As fresh Canadian statistics prove, universities' income from tuition fees was likely to be deducted from public-sector grants.

Supporters of tuition fees felt Scandinavian parents were ready to pay for higher education since an investment in a university degree proves value for money in a lifetime perspective. Governments in Scandinavia stress the importance of education but are not believed to be able to fund endless expansion.

Tove Bull, vice-chancellor at Norway's University of Tromso, said: "In a few years institutions will themselves propose tuition fees."

Tuition fees already exist in Scandinavian universities, she said. Distance-learning students have paid fees for years - often following the same courses as non-paying students.

High on the officials' wish list was a stronger emphasis on universities' performance in deciding on funding allocations.

A study by Peter Maassen, of the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente, showed that Denmark was the only one out of seven European countries with a clear emphasis on output in their financing system for education.

Sweden and the Netherlands mix input and output as a basis for funding, while Flanders, France, Germany and the United Kingdom allocates money on input.

Sigrun Aasland, leader of the National Union of Students in Norway, argued for a shift in focus from institutions to students. Money should follow the student - and an institution seen by students as non-performing should have a hard time.

Behind her argument was the sombre revelation that 40 per cent of Norwegian students drop out in their first two study years.

Representatives felt that time was running out for thinking in strictly national terms about financing and planning.

On student mobility in and out of Scandinavia, local universities were seen to be at a disadvantage because of the language barriers.

"With English as the dominating academic language, Scandinavian language universities are bound to be losers on the export market," Professor Bull said.

The conference, which also drew senior civil servants from the Baltic States, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, was organised by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Icelandic minister of education Bjorn Bjarnason was the host.

Subjects raised will be pursued by the Nordic ministers of education within the framework of the council of ministers.

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