Keeping higher education ‘free’

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Leah HaywardGUEST COMMENTARY: The Norwegian Parliament will be considering a government proposal to start charging tuition to students who come from beyond the borders Norway shares with Europe through its economic area agreement. It’s not expected to pass, much to the relief of the students themselves, but their victory isn’t secured yet. Leah Hayward, a master’s degree student from Canada, shares her thoughts on why Norway should maintain its policy of tuition-free higher education for everyone.

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IT IS VERY GENEROUS for Norway to offer free education, just as it’s generous of the Canadian government to provide free health care. But I don’t think of either of these things as “generosity” so much as humanity. These governments are providing equal access to some very basic, very important social services.

This demonstrates that they value things beyond dollars and bottom-line figures, things like justice and social welfare. I believe that governments with good social values should be seen as leaders, not ruthlessly reformed. The existing scheme in Norway is a rare and beautiful thing, and it would be a tremendous loss to society as a whole if programs such as these were to disappear.

What’s in it for Norway? Plenty, I argue. International students bring to the table diversity, different perspectives and knowledge bases, different values, and different practices. We come to Norway to learn, but Norwegians can learn a lot from us as well.

In financial terms, tuition might be free, but that doesn’t mean that we’re getting a free ride. Everything else costs money – a LOT of money in Norway, for such things as housing, food, entertainment, transportation and consumer goods. As a part of the visa process, international students from outside the EU are required to prove that they have almost NOK 100,000 in the bank. We bring money from our home countries and spend it in Norway.

I can assure you that if international students had to pay for all of those things PLUS tuition, the cost of studying in Norway would become prohibitively high. If a student is going to spend a fortune on higher education, you’d best believe they are going to spend it at a prestigious school in a country where they won’t need to learn a new language to be able to find a job. In short: Norway would become a far less desirable place to study.

The red carpets were rolled out for special bicentennial ceremonies at the University of Oslo on Friday and during the weekend. On Thursday, the university conferred 17 honorary doctorates. PHOTO: Views and News

A loss of foreign students who are unwilling or unable to pay tuition fees in addition to Norway’s high prices would be a “significant blow” to many Norwegian colleges and universities, argues Canadian master’s degree candidate Leah Hayward. Pictured here, the downtown campus of the University of Oslo. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The consequences of tuition fees would be grave for the individual institutions institutions as well. For example, at my university (The Norwegian University of Life Sciences, UMB, in Ås), almost a quarter of the students are international. If tuition fees were implemented, the university would be dealt a significant blow. In my faculty (Noragric), international students represent the majority. If our numbers were to fall, the faculty would suffer greatly, and most likely be shut down. The eliminated programs are extremely relevant in today’s world: Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in environment, development, and international relations.

Moreover, the bachelor’s degree at Noragric is one of the only English-language undergraduate degrees available in all of Norway. If tuition fees are implemented, the future looks grim for programs such as these.

As for enabling students to stay in Norway after completing their degrees, one of the major barriers we face is the language. People who do not speak Norwegian are unlikely to be able to pursue careers in Norway, it’s that simple. In order to stay in Norway, we need to learn the language, which is another challenge we face at our universities. Tuition fees may not exist, but Norwegian language courses are very rarely included in this. Many schools do not offer Norwegian language courses at all. This kills a lot of students’ motivation to learn the language, and even those who truly want to learn Norwegian must find and pay (a lot) for classes on their own. The ISU is pushing to have Norwegian classes offered for free at all universities, ideally for university credit.

It came as great news that the proposal for tuition fees for international students will not be passed. This is a great achievement, and apparently will make Norway the first European country to reject such a proposal. The vote, however, has not officially been taken yet.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Leah Hayward, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, is pursing a master’s degree in international environmental studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås, south of Oslo, formerly known as Norway’s Agricultural University. Hayward also is a vice president for the International Students’ Union in Norway.