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Norwegians don’t pay tuition, and more of them finish university

Is there a lesson here for Canadian governments?


Bergen is Norway’s second city, and a beautiful place. Built around a sheltered harbour filled with tall ships and sailboats and surrounded by seven green mountains, it is the country’s largest port and home to a major naval base. It is also a university town. The campuses of the University of Bergen are scattered around the city, from its 19th-century museum of culture and natural history on top of a hill to the glassy modernist buildings of the Marineholmen Centre, down by the Damgardsundet waterway.

It’s behind these glass walls that Kristin Westman has been studying toward her master’s of science in marine biology. Part Swedish and part Norwegian, Ms. Westman earned a BA from Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec and says, “I would have been happy to stay in Canada.” But something got in the way: high tuition. So she moved back to Scandinavia, where postsecondary institutions offer tuition-free education for all citizens.

The traditionally high standard of living of Nordic countries has been bolstered in Norway by the resources that flow from the country’s North Sea oil beds. Now Europe’s top stockholder with more than $450 billion in assets, Norway created a state oil company and channeled its petrodollars into a government pension fund and raising the welfare of its citizens. “The income from the oil is lubricating the whole economy of Norway,” observes Anders Goksøyr, head of the biology department at the University of Bergen.

Despite its wealth, Norway kept income and sales taxes high, using those tax dollars to fund an extensive social safety net – it’s ranked the world’s best country to live in by the United Nations’ Human Development Index. “Norway accepts, and expects, a relatively large amount of government influence on things in people’s daily lives,” observes Karin Pittman, an expatriate Canadian, honorary consul and biology professor at the University of Bergen.

The quality of a Norwegian university education is high, yet tuition is usually free. Norwegian students pay an administrative fee of less than $100 per semester that helps finance services such as kindergartens for their children, health care and advisory help. The government pays students’ living expenses through a combined loan and scholarship (the amount forgiven depends on a number of factors, including the student’s wealth and the number of courses taken and passed); it’s possible for a student to have 40 percent of living expenses paid for by government. “The philosophy is that higher education should be available to all those who qualify, and not be dependent on access to funding in the form of your parents’ income,” says Dr. Pittman.

Christine Elgen, a master’s student in marine biology and president of the biology department’s student organization, adds, “It means that families that don’t have a lot of money can send their children to college and university.”

To be sure, Norwegian university students, like their counterparts in Canada, share space with roommates, cook on hotplates and work at part-time jobs to fund extras, like an active social life. Due to the high cost of living, and despite their generous subsidies, students often accrue high levels of debt by graduation.

But the framework for debate is very different from Canada’s. Student federations here protest that the government should increase the stipend and up its frequency from 10 months to 11, to ease students through the summer. The high level of government funding has simply become an accepted part of the system, says Dr. Goksøyr: “They take it for granted, more or less.”

When told that student loans are a major source of worry among Canadian students, Ms. Elgen describes the situation of a friend of hers in Norway who may find himself ineligible for loan forgiveness because he has too much money. In Norway, that means he owns a house or has more than $43,000 Cdn in the bank. “It’s kind of bad if you have too much money in the bank, and he’s worried about that. We talk about it all the time,” she says.

Norway’s dedication to funding higher education has contributed to a highly educated population. The impact on grades, however, has been negligible. Some say that by making university so accessible, large numbers of students attend who aren’t suited to university. In addition, some Norwegians may lack motivation to succeed academically since they haven’t invested much of their own money in it.

But, generous funding does mean that more of those who start university actually finish. Norway boasts one of the world’s highest university completion rates: among adults aged 25 to 64, almost 32 percent completed a university degree, compared with just over 24 percent in Canada.

Ms. Westman, with her BA from Bishop’s, says, “In Canada, a lot of my friends who had gotten their bachelor’s degree had no real intention to further their education, or just couldn’t afford it, even if they wanted to. But here, getting your bachelor and master’s is the most common thing to do.”

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  1. Baljit Singh / October 1, 2010 at 08:25

    This has been a rather intriguing issue for me and do not understand very well. Canada, let us leave our friends in the States out of this discussion, may be comparable to Norway in its natural resources, population and other few things. Many of us dismiss Norwegian or Nordic countries as too “socialistic”. The recent stress and discomfort felt by so many Canadians about their pensions and homes makes us wonder if there is a better way to use our natural resources by subsidizing post-secondary education, more support for post-retirement life and also other social services. If Nordic countries can afford these government services, we should be able to do so as well.

  2. Universal access / October 2, 2010 at 06:53

    Thank you very much. I am surprised this is becoming an intriguing issue in Canada. Earlier this month, one of my friends went to listen to one of our federal MPs. She asked the same question if it is possible in many European countries to make education universally accessible, why not in Canada?

    True, eduction is free in Norway, not only for Norwegians but also for all international students. Regarding the living-expenses, international students from low-income countries who are selected for the government load, what is called quota in Norway, their load automatically becomes a grant (loan forgiven) when one returns to work in a low-income country.

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