Thematic Week: The Introduction of Tuition Fees in the Nordic Countries

We would like to introduce you to our new Hedda Thematic Week where we  focus on one particular higher education topic for the duration of a week (a format that will occur regularly on the Hedda blog).  Our first thematic week focuses on the debates around tuition fees in the Nordic countries. This means that during this week, we will publish consecutive posts from  researchers and experts who will provide comments on the issue in the various Nordic countries.

Please note: we have opened the comments section, so you will be able to provide insights and comments to the posts as well.

Leasa Weimer

The introductory article to the current thematic week is written by Leasa Weimer, a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Georgia, USA. Leasa is a former graduate of our Erasmus Mundus master programme on Higher Education and she was a long time editor of the Hedda blog. She will conduct her dissertation research on the introduction of tuition fees in Finland with a Fulbright and American-Scandinavian Foundation grant.

As public funding for higher education continues to decline in most countries, the interest of nation-states in the role international students can play in economic development has grown. This has resulted in the imposition of (and increase in) tuition fees for international students. Hence, countries that have traditionally been free of tuition, some of the Nordic countries, are responding to these demands and fiscal pressures by implementing new measures not only to recruit international students, but also to capitalize on the competitive fees-paying international student market.

In the past decade, we have seen Denmark, Finland, and Sweden make significant moves towards the marketization of higher education through various higher education reforms including the introduction of tuition fees for non-EU/EEA students (what many European countries define as international students).  As part of a larger university reform, Denmark was the first Nordic country to implement tuition fees into their public higher education system. In 2006, the Danish government introduced tuition fees and experienced a significant decrease in the number of new non-EU/EEA students in full degree programs. While the current tuition fees in Denmark only impact degree students coming from outside Europe, this past year the Danish Science Minister fueled the tuition debate by proposing an idea to privatize universities, subsequently leading to the introduction of tuition fees for all students.

Sweden passed legislation to begin collecting tuition from non-EU/EEA students for enrollment in bachelors and masters programs in the fall of 2011. In addition to a new mandatory application fee of SEK 900 (US $140), non-European students will pay tuition fees ranging from SEK 80,000 (US $12,400) and topping out at 245,000 kroner (US $35,700) per year depending on the university and field of study. The new fees have resulted in Sweden experiencing a significant drop in the number of applications for the 2011/12 academic year, as international applications for masters programs decreased by 73% and international courses by 86%. Thus, leading to a 58% decline in non-European enrollments in international masters programs in Sweden.  Higher education minister Tobias Krantz told reporters, “We want to compete in the international education market on the quality of Sweden’s education system, rather than simply because Sweden’s education is free of charge.”

With the New Universities Act of 2009, the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture encourages universities, the vehicle for knowledge creation and dissemination, to become more entrepreneurial and innovative. Out of this new legislation grew a 5-year pilot program allowing universities to collect tuition fees from non-EU/EEA students enrolled in specified English-taught masters programs. Until 2010, the Finnish Constitution guaranteed a tuition-free higher education system for all students, regardless of nationality, pursuing bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees. In this new legislation, the Ministry granted 131 English-language masters programs, within nine universities and eleven polytechnics, the opportunity to take part in the experimental tuition program beginning in the fall of 2010. While some of the selected universities and masters programs have jumped at the chance to collect tuition fees, others have chosen not to–such as the University of Jyväskylä.

Currently, only Iceland and Norway have chosen not to introduce fees, despite their Nordic neighbors move into the fees-paying international student market.

This shift towards Nordic countries collecting tuition brings up many questions. Are non-European students no longer considered the “public” as they are now seen as consumers buying a “private good”? Will these new tuition fees trickle down to the European students and eventually hit the domestic students? Where has the resistance to these tuition fees been the strongest, students, faculty or administrators? Are small countries, that have a reputation for having a high cost of living, able to compete in the fees-paying international student market? Will the new tuition fees be a revenue-generating endeavor or will the fees work as cost-recovery for the additional marketing, branding, and administrative capacity that universities incur when entering the international student market?