Students who paid excessive tuition fees while attending the private and now troubled Westerdals communications school are evaluating whether they’ll accept a compensation offer from new school officials. The officials claim the offer amounts to 60 percent of what the students are owed, while the students think it’s worth just 40 percent.
The new leaders of Westerdals said this week that they were prepared to pay around NOK 50 million in compensation to around 1,300 students who were over-charged from 2002 to 2012. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), which revealed financial irregularities around Westerdals in connection with its merger with two other schools controlled by the same owners, has put the amount at NOK 70 million.
Even though Westerdals is a private school, it has applied for and received state funding over the years. It thus is subject to state regulations that include caps on tuition fees. Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, who has admitted poor regulatory control of Westerdals and demanded millions of kroner in reimbusement to the state, has stated that he also expects the school to compensate its former students.
Offer finally on the table
Westerdals’ new leaders have admitted to the financial irregularities of the past and finally extended their compensation offer on Wednesday. “We have decided that we can stretch ourselves up to NOK 50 million,” Tine Widerøe, who took over as rector at Westerdals after the scandal broke, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
Widerøe once again tried to distance the school’s new leadership, though, from the problems allegedly created by her predecessors. “We want to show that we want to clean up here, and apologize for what happened at the former school,” Widerøe said, even though the recently merged school is still owned by Oslo-based firm Anthon B Nilsen, which in turn is owned by members of Norway’s prominent Løvenskiold family. She said the students have until May 12 to accept the offer, which she described as “very generous.”
The former students, many of whom are still paying student loans that were also higher than they should have been, aren’t so sure. Accepting the offer also means giving up their rights to make any new claims against the school.
“In reality, they’re offering us around 40 percent of what we’ve demanded in compensation,” former student Erling Løken Andersen, who’s representing around 800 others, told NRK. That’s because Westerdals’ offer doesn’t take into account the interest the students have paid on their student loans over the past 10 years.
“At the same time, we don’t think the offer is very constructive,” Andersen added. “The school still isn’t accepting responsibility for what happened.” He noted, however, that some former students he’s contacted are relieved the school is at least finally offering something.
Harald Strømstad, a partner in the Oslo office of law firm DLA Piper, is representing around 400 students and prepared to file a class-action lawsuit if necessary to claim the desired amount of compensation. He also said it was “positive” that Westerdals has put an offer on the table, but that it was “too early” to evaluate it.
Former Westerdals student Bjørn Glestad called the offer “a step in the right direction” but that “we need more time to go through the offer before we decide what we’ll do.”