Norway’s Foreign Students: A Benefit not a Burden

Norway’s Foreign students a benefit not a burden

The diversity of Norway’s higher education system is under threat. Sweden, Denmark and Germany are the latest countries to start charging fees to foreign students.  Indeed, Norway increasingly appears like a last beacon of kindness, or  if you take the other view, a beacon of stupidity; “the sucker” in a prisoner dilemma game.

Why should Norwegian tax payers subsidise these foreign free loaders?  This appears to be the direction political consensus is swinging in; the Progress Party, KrF and the youth of Hoyre have all suggested introducing foreigners.  Given their polling it is also probably the direction Norway  will shortly be moving. Trygve Slagsvold Vedum of Sp gives us insight into the logic  underpinning this movement in an interview with Aftenposten  “It’s natural that we follow our neighbouring countries in this area”. Indeed, Trygve’s logic seems to make intuitive sense if you don’t think about it too hard.

The trouble is that forming policy like a slow witted sheep chooses where he wants to go is not really Annerledeslandet style. Norway historically,  has understood that what is best for the rest is not necessarily best for Norway; whether it’s the EU, the state ownership of the oil, or the focus on rehabilitation rather than retribution in the penal system. Norwegian society has not got where it is by following their neighbours blindly.

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Trygve Slagsvold Vedum of Sp

The Minster of Agriculture’s tit for tat protectionist game may work for farmers but not for higher education.  While it is certainly unfair that Norway’s students have to pay so much to study in the US and the UK, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Norway would gain anything from retaliating in kind. It must judge international education fees equation on consideration of the merits not on emotion.  It is certainly not as clear cut as Trygve seems to believe..

Before I begin I should refute the case that as a foreigner benefiting from world class Norwegian education right now, I have a vested interest in keeping eduction free. Actually, if I were your economist’s “rational man”, I should be lobbying in the opposite direction. I graduate this year and so any changes won’t affect me; I will continue working in Norway next year and so new foreigners coming in, if one accepts that they are a burden on the Norway’s taxpayers, will be a burden on me too. No, I write this as a permanent foreign resident of Norway, with a vested interest in Norwegian society remaining prosperous and a pleasant place to live.

The education question must be broken down into the costs and benefits to Norway. To do that one must first recognise that university education is not one generic good which foreigners use and throwaway at equal cost to the tax payer. Certain courses cost a lot more than others. For example, medicine takes 5 years and is extremely expensive to teach as it requires scarce high cost items like cadavers to practice on. It is also a subject that is very much “taught”, having international students there does not improve the quality of classes.  Medicine therefore classifies as something that it would be extremely difficult to argue that it offers value for money to Norway’s tax payers to fund. Particularly if, as is currently the case non-EU students would be unable to stay and work in Norway even if they wanted to.

Social Sciences on the other hand cost a fraction of the price.  The marginal difference of an extra student in the occasional lectures and classes is minimal up to the size of the room they happen to be taught in and the 30m extra it takes to mark the exam or term paper. Meanwhile the materials required to study require only online journal access (increasingly this disproportionately expensive, but still not very much). If you look at two years Masters in Social Sciences then the cost benefit equation – regardless of whether the student stays in Norway- begins to look a lot more favourable. The wider point is that different subjects costs different amounts, and any policy must take this into account when weighing up the cost benefit equation of fees for foreigners.

It critical to understand that educating Foreigners is not charity; they do contribute to Norway in a number of ways during their studies. Certainly, they are getting very good deal, but this is not a zero sum game, Norway also benefits. While Norway’s foreign students are takers in terms of education, that is pretty much it in terms of public provision. 18-30s are the least likely to use health service, do not qualify for welfare, while Norway’s defence, infrastructure and policing costs would remain the same regardless. Meanwhile in return, the students pay for living with either a) paying with money sent from their home country, or b) working (frequently jobs natives don’t want) and paying taxes. Both of which are beneficial to Norway. How much?  Assuming an average yearly living cost of 150,000 NOK, that is not an insignificant contribution to the economy.

Then there are the spinoff or ‘soft’ benefits that are difficult to measure but nonetheless important. First of all in the class itself, having diversity improves the quality and variety of the classes and the research. The cross pollination of ideas, experiences and knowledge from different cultures is certainly valued by Ivy league universities in the US, most of which offer a large number of full scholarships to international students. Presumably it is also why most university ranking systems international use international diversity as one of their inputs for measuring the quality of an institution..

Even if the students don’t end up staying in Norway, they provide an excellent advertisement for Norway and its education system; something which an ambitious but small country like Norway should be gunning for.  Indeed,  Hoyre proper appear to understand the value of these intangible benefits, Bent Høie in rebuking his youth party’s policy, argued keeping education free for foreigners  “boost[s] the status of higher education in Norway.” and that “ it’s positive that folks from outside the country want to study in Norway”. It is difficult to count these soft benefits, but only a philistine would claim that we should not attempt to take them into account.

Certainly higher education would appear like a better long term bet for Norway’s branding than some of the MFA’s other efforts. While Sweden has design and Denmark has television the MFA has been attempting to re-sell the world Aha to boost Norrways brand. Surely university education is a more beneficial, desirable and sustainable area where Norway can promote itself.

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I love Aha as much as the next man, but is it really what Norway wants to be known for?

High prestige education can work as a great lure to high skilled immigrants that Norway needs. However  as Sweden is finding out now, a country should not take for granted that the foreign students are not price sensitive. One of the benefits of pausing to observe the flock before following is that you can see if they fall over a cliff. Sweden is an excellent case, perhaps they assumed that Swedish education was so well known that fees would just mean free money for their universities. Not quite: Their international student applications fell 85% the year they changed (one must presume they are now left with the richest and the dumbest). If Norway made the same mistake now, then Trygve’s policy would look less like that of a sheep than a lemming.

Norway cannot presume it can successfully copy the UK and US model. While they are  not superior in educational terms, they have the prestige of their name to draw students, that is what counts when prices become similar. Reputation. Lets be honest, if you added fees to Norway’s famously high prices, the reputation of even Blindern would unlikely be sufficient but for whatever few mega-rich Norwegaphiles exist.

In addition, allowing universities to charge foreigners fees can undermine a university’s qualitiy control. In the UK, where there are over 100 universities, many are now dependent on the largesse of foreign students for survival. As a result many of the smaller universities more or less allow anyone to study so long as they have the money. Heck, this is even seen at the best universities, LSE’s former director Howard David,  apprarently blinded by pound signs, allowed Ghaddifi’s sons and henchmen to study at LSE. Norway’s universities, with the high cost of living and general lack of internation fame, will have even more trouble attracting a high quality of foreign students.

But that could change. Instead of viewing other countries educational priorities as a pattern to follow, Norway could see it as an opportunity. Norway’s world class free education is increasingly unique in the developed world; this means that Norway could have the pick of the best of the academically excellent, ambitious but not rich international students. Heck, even rich ones do not much like fees. As the number of international applications increases, getting into Norway will become tougher and tougher and could potentially become synonymous with extreme academic excellence in the same way as Harvard.  High demand combined with scarce supply breeds prestige.

If that sounds far fetched, then consider that the reputation of school is as much based on its students and alumni as on its teaching. At the moment I am at Aas University, where the teaching and lecturing is significantly superior to the internationally prestigious LSE (where I did my undergrad). The key difference is that the other students at LSE  had to beat off famously stiff competition to get in (or be a member of some international elite; sons of dictators that sort of thing) and everybody knows that you have to be smart to go there. If Norway promoted itself, just by

With a little bit of promotion, perhaps just by making the ratio of applicants to places public knowledge, Norwegian universities could benefit from the same thing. In a few years, Norway could become famous for being  the only country in the world that values education so highly it provides it for free to foreigners, provided they can beat off the ferocious competition for the prized few places. This will quickly become self sustaining as talented alumni leave, Norway’s reputation as a place for the best and brightest will grow attracting more talented students and future successful alumni. Indeed, LSE’s laissez faire attitude to its students shows how this can happen almost on its own.

The next Norwegian government must look long and hard before following the flock on higher education.  This a a question of ambition, whether Norway wants to look inwards and think small or look outwards and think big. Norway might be able to save a little by introducing fees, but certainly not without losing a lot in terms of human capital and massive long term reputation gains. Indeed if it backs itself, then there is no reason why in a few years time Norway’s universities could be home to some of the brightest in the world, and Norway itself could become a byword for elite university education adding to its existing soft power palette of oil, development and environmental. All without any additional costs to the Norwegian tax payer and absolutely no Aha.

This article was originally written for and published in The Foreigner.

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About Paul Beaumont

Occasional journalist, part-time socialist & full time International Relations PhD student. Available for hire - but never in the morning. Academia page: https://umb.academia.edu/PaulBeaumont
This entry was posted in Notes on Norway. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Norway’s Foreign Students: A Benefit not a Burden

  1. Anne Chia says:

    I did consider taking advantage of Norways magnanimity, but I do not think that i can afford to be away studying for two years; too long!

  2. KG says:

    Great ideas !

  3. Shenille says:

    Hi! I’m applying this December for the next academic year to Stavanger uni. I’m from Trinidad and Tobago (Caribbean) and not fully prepared with respect to the move and climate etc. Any tips?

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