Can Norway Maintain Free Education for All?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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With the cost of higher education spiraling out of control here in the United States, students in Europe have long had a much sweeter deal—a college education for free, or nearly free. Some especially generous countries—including Germany, Sweden, and Denmark—even offered free higher education to international students until recently. But recent austerity measures have made it much more difficult for students to obtain a free education, particularly in a country other than their native one. And if conservative politicians in Norway have their way, one of the last bastions of free higher education for all may soon disappear.

"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," Stig Arne Skjerven, director of academic affairs at Norway's Aalesund University College, told Times Higher Education. Given that Denmark and Sweden are abandoning free education for students outside the EU/EEA, the political leaders are "asking if it is really fair to pay for these foreign students and if the pressure on Norway will be too great," said Skjerven.

The tuition-free policy draws thousands of foreign students to Norway each year: nearly 16,500 last year, up 27 percent from about 13,000 in 2008. That includes "nearly 2,000 Russians, 699 Chinese students and 376 Iranian nationals," as well as "several hundred students" from Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and the United States. And, after Sweden began charging international students this year—the equivalent of $20,700 annually—that country saw an 85 percent drop in non-EU student applications, while the University of Oslo saw a 60 percent increase.

Why offer a free college education to non-EU students in the first place? Europe's population is declining, so if international scholars decide to stick around Norway after graduation, they contribute to the local tax base. And even if an international student ends up going back to her homeland, she'll likely remember Norway's generosity when she holds a position of influence.

The Norwegian minister of research and higher education, Tora Aasland, told the Times that a free education is still a "fundamental principle" in the country. "Equality is a value that we support," he says, so the university system's leaders "don't make a difference between foreign students and domestic students."

That position is a far cry from the policies in the United States, the U.K., and many other Western nations, where international students are often seen as a source of huge revenue. With budget cuts hitting higher education around the world, international students—who nearly always pay full price in the U.S. and Britain—are becoming increasingly desirable.

Skjerven predicts that national anger over the July massacre by gunman Anders Breivik could propel the conservative party into power, resulting in fees for non-EU students. If that happens, the age of free, borderless higher education could be over.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user alexao