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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

University at a crossroads

Norway’s first university, the University of Oslo, is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year at a time when more foreign students than ever are flocking to universities all over the country. Debate is rising over whether they should be charged tuition, not least in an effort to boost international rankings.

Norway's first university was set up in downtown Oslo, and this building called the Aula has just been renovated. The main campus is at Blindern, west of downtown. PHOTO: Views and News

Norway is now the only Scandinavian country where a university education is free to whoever can meet entrance requirements. Students from outside the European Economic Area had to start paying tuition in Sweden this year, leaving Norway alone in refusing to charge any university fees, either for Norwegians or others.

Svein Harberg, a Member of Parliament from the Conservative Party, thinks Norway needs to re-evaluate its lack of tuition, especially at a time when most university campuses face budget restrictions and huge demand for improved facilities. The simple fact that it’s free to study in Norway “can lead to such a wave of foreign students that we need to do something,” Harberg told newspaper Dagsavisen this week.

In countries like the US, where university education costs a small fortune even at state schools, it’s common for public universities to charge not only higher tuition to foreign students but also to students from other states. In Norway, the philosophy has been that a university education should be covered by the general tax base and be a social right along with health care and lower levels of education.

Harberg now worries that Norway’s lack of tuition can attract a lower caliber of student. “With Norwegian education being free, it can affect the kind of students who apply,” Harberg told Dagsavisen. “We can get another level of quality. Motivation is important, and if motivation for a student looking at Norway is only because there’s no tuition, we lose something along the way.”

The numbers of foreign students have risen dramatically in recent years, up 85 percent from 2002 to 2010. Last year, a total of 16,000 foreign students were registered at Norwegian colleges and universities. The largest single group came from Germany, followed by Russia. Meanwhile, around 20,000 Norwegian students studied abroad where they usually face high fees, but get much of them covered by the state and have access to state-guaranteed student loans.

There doesn’t appear to be much political support for introducing tuition at Norwegian universities. The student organization NSO fears that charging tuition to foreign students could lead to tuition for all students, and mark a step away from the Norwegian principle of education for all.

Alf Rasmussen of the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Higher Education (SIU) believes the increase in international students will boost the quality of local colleges and universities. “We live in an international and globalized world, and that’s reflected in our educational system” Rasmussen told Dagsavisen.

Norway’s government minister in charge of higher education and research, Tora Aasland of the Socialist Left party, also has claimed there will be no proposals to introduce tuition from the current left-center coalition government.

Meanwhile, various celebrations are planned throughout the year in connection with the University of Oslo’s bicentennial. Events last weekend included an “Idea Festival,” various seminars and lectures. The university is also trying to build up its own alumni association, inviting thousands of former students back to campus last Saturday. More events are planned for the autumn.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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