Last of the free: will Norway's universal no-fee policy endure?

Conservatives are keen to follow Swedish, Danish lead in charging non-EU students. Jack Grove writes

October 13, 2011

Credit: C.Saetre
A wind in their sails: by not charging tuition fees to foreigners at its universities, Norway has increased the number of overseas postgraduate researchers who come to work in areas such as renewable energy

As Sweden introduces tuition fees of up to €15,000 (£13,145) for non-European Union students this year, Norway is now one of the few European states to stick to the once-sacrosanct belief in "free education for all".

While its Nordic neighbours Sweden and Denmark continue to provide free tuition for domestic and EU students only, Norway stands alone in offering free higher education to students regardless of citizenship.

Last year, that offer was taken up by almost 16,500 non-EU students - up per cent from 12,997 in 2007-08. They included nearly 2,000 Russians, 699 Chinese students and 376 Iranian nationals.

Several hundred students from Ethiopia, Pakistan and Ghana enrolled at Norwegian universities last year, as did young people from the US, India and Nepal.

Applications to Norwegian universities have soared even further after Sweden's move to institute charges from 2011-12 was followed by an 85 per cent drop in applications from outside the EU.

Norway's largest institution, the University of Oslo, experienced a 60 per cent increase in applications from non-EU students this year, while applications rose 45 per cent at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

The fact that Norwegian universities are offering a growing range of courses in English further strengthens the country's appeal as a destination.

Tora Aasland, Norway's minister of research and higher education in the ruling Centre-Left coalition, says that support for free education remains strong.

"It is a fundamental principle for the Norwegian government. It is important for us to promote the welfare state and free higher education is very central to this. It has not been questioned by many (Norwegian) governments. Equality is a value that we support - we don't make a difference between foreign students and domestic students."

Indeed, access to the combined state grant/loan of up to NKr90,800 (£10,060) a year is extended to foreign nationals studying in the notoriously expensive state, where a pint of beer can cost as much as £10.

Sharp contrast

Norway's approach stands in sharp contrast to the UK sector, where universities strive to boost recruitment of higher-paying international students to help balance the books. Overseas students contributed about £2 billion in tuition fees alone to the UK sector in 2008-09 - about 10 per cent of all university income, according to government figures.

Although Norway remains outside the EU (in a 1994 referendum, 52 per cent of votes were cast against membership), the nation is an enthusiastic supporter of the union's higher education policy. It has signed up to cooperative agreements that ensure students from member states are charged the same as home students - namely, nothing.

However, there are signs that the largesse extended to students from across the globe may come to an end, claims Stig Arne Skjerven, director of academic affairs at Aalesund University College, situated about 235km north of Bergen.

"It might be changing for several reasons," he says. "There is already pressure on the system and the box has already been opened by Denmark and Sweden.

"There are some academics asking how motivated these foreign students have been, and the Conservative Party took up the issue in opposition, saying that we need to institute fees.

"Some are asking if it is really fair to pay for these foreign students and if the pressure on Norway will be too great once Sweden puts up its fees.

"The government has also been looking into the issue, but it says it won't force changes on the landscape."

Skjerven predicts that with the 2013 national election expected to be a closely fought battle, the impact of the Utøya island massacre by gunman Anders Breivik in July could see a shift in support from the Centre-Left coalition to the Conservatives - and ultimately the imposition of tuition fees for overseas students.

A tuition fee of NKr30,000 has been suggested as a possible starting level for non-EU students.

Skjerven contends that the introduction of such fees at state universities would not pave the way for universal undergraduate charges, as it did in England.

Lene Rehder, head of study administration at Aarhus University's School of Business in Denmark, where fees for non-EU students were introduced in 2006, says domestic fees remain unpalatable for Scandinavians.

Many voters see free education as the cornerstone of a Left-leaning social democratic political model founded on a strong public sector and welfare state, she says.

"Fees for third-country (ie, non-EU) students were a major concern, as it was seen as a first step away from the Danish welfare model.

"Everyone pays high taxes, but some people began to ask: 'Why should people who have not been to university pay for non-EU students'"

But the introduction of fees for domestic students in Denmark would only lead to students "heading across the bridge to Sweden" and nearby Malmö University, she adds, emphasising the high level of mobility between Scandinavian countries, where student grants can be transferred to study in other European states.

Yet issues of nationalism have begun to colour inter-Scandinavian relations, Rehder noted, citing recent coverage in the Danish media of the fact that some 25 per cent of places in Denmark's medical schools are filled by Swedes.

Stealing a march on research rivals

One potential economic benefit of Norway's free education policy could lie in its ability to attract top researchers ahead of its Scandinavian rivals, in the wake of Sweden's and Denmark's imposition of fees for master's and PhD programmes for non-EU students.

Prospective overseas postgraduates who are not put off by the high cost of living and limited opportunities for part-time work in Norway could be enticed by the prospect of free study. In contrast, the cost for overseas students on postgraduate courses at some UK institutions can reach £30,000.

In recent years, Norway has seen a large increase in foreign researchers, with the proportion of doctoral degrees gained by overseas students rising from about 8 to 10 per cent in the early 1990s to 28 per cent in 2010.

Like other oil- and gas-rich countries, Norway is looking to expand its research activities in key high-technology markets.

"Some areas of focus for research are the maritime industry, environmental sciences and renewable energies," Skjerven says.

"Health issues regarding our ageing population have seen research investment, too, as it is seen as a way of developing Norway's future."

This push towards a knowledge-based economy has gathered pace in the past decade, with 2003 reforms bringing Norway in line with the Bologna Process intended to harmonise European university systems.

Prior to those reforms, Norway had just four public universities: Oslo, Bergen, Tromso (350km inside the Arctic Circle) and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

There are now eight, along with six "specialised university institutions", two national academies of the arts and 21 state university colleges (down from 98 following mergers in 1994), all serving a population of 4.9 million.

The current government is keen to expand research in science and technology at state-funded higher education institutions.

"It is important for Norway to be on the front line in these specialist fields, not just in oil technology," Aasland says.

"We have many large companies drilling out in the ocean, which brings many multinationals to the country, and we are now looking to develop industries such as offshore power windmills.

"We are also a leader in polar research, and we also do lots of activity in social sciences," she says.

"Norway has its wealth from oil and gas, but people forget that we are not allowed to use that money or can use only a very small part of it. Most of it is saved for future generations in our pension funds.

"People think we have so much money, but we don't.

"We are now part of the big global economy and looking to be a leader in research, education and innovation."

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