«Tuition fees will impoverish learning environments for Norwegian students, too»

This proposal is a missed opportunity for Norway to uphold its unique tradition of promoting education as a valuable investment for everyone, irrespective of their country of origin, writes Jennifer Infanti and Kam Sripada.

Portrait of Jennifer Infanti and Kam Sripada
Jennifer Infanti and Kam Sripada. Photo: Geir Mogen

This is an opinion piece. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.

Chronicle by Jennifer Infanti, PhD, Department of Public Health and Nursing and Kam Sripada, PhD, Centre for Digital Life Norway

Norway’s radical and hasty proposal to implement tuition fees for non-EU/EEA students contradicts its commitment to enhance education, work, fair and proper income, health, and equal opportunity as part of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This proposal not only risks losing talented individuals from around the world to Norway but also impoverishing learning environments for all students. This proposal is a missed opportunity for Norway to uphold its unique tradition of promoting education as a valuable investment for everyone, irrespective of their country of origin. We stand united with rectors, academic staff, and, most importantly, students, urging this government to reject the proposal at its upcoming June committee meeting.

Currently, Norwegian students make up 90.7 % of NTNU’s student body, with the remaining students representing 122 countries. However, the number of non-European students pursuing bachelor’s or master’s degrees at NTNU, which stands today around 450, is only a fraction of the total qualified applicants to our international master programs. If the proposed tuition fees are implemented without the introduction of new scholarships, this number is expected to plummet next year. Norway’s campuses will then suddenly offer fewer cross-cultural friendships, a more homogenous student body, diminished competencies across many programs, less language diversity, and with negligible cost-savings to show for it. As Professor Vladimir Tikhonov from UiO has highlighted, some of the finest master’s students he has had would have been unable to pursue their education if tuition fees had been required. We share this sentiment based on our own experiences.

It is essential to question how this policy genuinely benefits Norwegian students.

Will the introduction of tuition fees for non-European students strengthen Norwegian as an academic language? No since most affected students are already enrolled in English-language international master’s programs. Language support initiatives would be more effective in addressing this concern. It is also highly unlikely these fees will prevent Norwegian students from leaving the academic sector as their departure is primarily due to limited career opportunities and more attractive workplaces outside of academia. The real solutions to these concerns lie in addressing the underlying issues.

Finally, will the proposed fees boost Norwegian universities’ revenues? Doubtful, since students will seek more affordable and higher-ranked study programs elsewhere in Europe. Consider the Master of Science degree program in Global Health at NTNU. The program receives 600 applicants from outside the non-EU/EEA students each year — 150—200 of whom are qualified. Around half of the total 25 seats are awarded to the top candidates. If the proposed fees are implemented, the cost of NTNU’s 2-year program would skyrocket to around US$ 35,400, far above the European average of US$ 20,335 for global health master programs (BMJ Global Health). The MSc in Global Health at the Karolinska Institute costs half of NTNU’s proposed price.

Expensive flights, visas, and living expenses in Norway require many non-European students and their families to pool money, deplete savings, take part-time jobs, and place their aspirations on a journey up north. Their experiences have the potential to inspire more Norwegian students to study abroad, a strategic objective that NTNU and other Norwegian universities have for years failed to fulfill.

Norway’s reputation for providing free education to all, regardless of nationality, aligns with the view that education is a fundamental human right. Expansion of free and universal education promotes social equality by equalizing access and because disadvantaged populations benefit more from access. Imposing high tuition fees on non-European students not only contradicts these principles but also conveys the message to today’s Norwegian students that education is a commodity rather than a right. Are these the values we wish to instill?

Affluent nations relentlessly extract and exploit financial, human, and other resources from low-income countries to fuel our own economic growth, overshadowing the relatively minor funding previously allocated to non-European students seeking higher education in Norway.

The government should reject this proposal and recommit to supporting education for all. Instead of requiring tuition fees, the government can explore alternative funding models for higher education, such as partnerships with the private sector or philanthropic organizations. Models like the MasterCard Foundation and University of Cape Town collaboration can provide inspiration. Schemes linking study programs with employment to support the Norwegian economy are also worth considering. In the meantime, the government and our university leaders need to take immediate action to mitigate the negative impact of tuition fees on campuses in Norway, set to take effect as early as August. Measures should include financial aid for talented students demonstrating financial need, regardless of their national origin. Students who have already applied for the 2023—2024 academic year before fees were announced should not be required to pay.

It is time to hold our government accountable for their commitments to the SDGs and prevent university campuses in Norway, known for the principles of ‘likestilling’ and ‘janteloven’, from becoming dull and exclusive enclaves of privilege.

Text in Norwegian.