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University tuition across Europe: to fee or not to fee?

If you’ve been reading about Finland’s planned introduction of tuition fees for international students later this year, you could be excused for having a sense of déjà vu. From August 1, non-EU undergraduate and master’s students will pay at least €1,500 per year to study in Finland.

Some educators fear introducing university tuition fees may trigger a mass exodus of international students, but others say it brings opportunity. Image: Bea Ramirez/The PIE News.

“We do not believe that education is a privilege only for the wealthy, regardless of what passport they hold”

However, the introduction of fees is some years and several dizzying u-turns in the making. It’s also not actually the first time international students will pay for their studies in Finland.

Some English-taught master’s programs did charge an average of €8,000 in a pilot project that ran from 2010-2014, but proposals to roll out the scheme further were rejected. The argument behind the rollout was that if international students leave after graduation, they leave the taxpayer out of pocket.

“In order to even maintain the economic power that we have now, we will need to massively recruit foreign talent”

The MP making the argument, Arto Satonen, warned that foreign graduates of Finnish universities would go on to work in the UK, US and Australia, “so with Finnish taxpayers’ money we are actually educating workers for the Anglo Saxon countries’ economies.”

His claim was, however, contradicted by research from the Centre for International Mobility that showed 44% of foreign students who graduated in 2009 were still employed in Finland five years later.

Another study by Danish think tank DEA shows that subsidising foreign students in these numbers makes economic sense. It found international students who completed a subsidised degree between 1996 and 2008 contributed a net 165.5m Danish krone (US$23.8m) over that period, with 40% still in the country a year after graduation.

But the idea that foreigners are a drain on the state is pervasive, and political winds are often directed by public perception.

Universities must therefore work to highlight the benefits international students bring, explains Jón Atli Benediktsson, rector and president at the University of Iceland.

Students in Iceland don’t pay tuition fees regardless of where they’re from (though they do pay a registration fee of €100-€250), and universities “make an effort to present, both to policy makers and the public, the importance of attracting international students to Iceland and strengthening our international collaborations, for example, to create opportunities for Icelandic students abroad”, he explains.

“We believe that free higher education is a cornerstone of a vibrant democracy”

In Germany, the public by and large support efforts to educate students from further afield because they understand the economic case for it, notes Jérôme Rickmann, director of international talent acquisition & project development at EBC Hochschule.

“The main argument is that we are, demographically speaking, a shrinking society, so in order to even maintain the economic power that we have now, we will need to massively recruit foreign talent,” he explains.

Of course, the arguments in support of free education are not solely economic. In Norway, for example, “We believe that free higher education is a cornerstone of a vibrant democracy – and that international students are essential because of the perspectives they bring to the campus and to their peers,” asserts University of Oslo rector Ole Petter Ottersen.

Pricing out students from poorer backgrounds goes against the egalitarian thinking that is integral to Norway’s national identity, adds Kathrine Pekot, senior executive officer at the University of Stavanger’s international office: “Norwegians do not believe that education is a privilege accessible only for the wealthy… regardless of what passport they may hold.”

This egalitarian thinking is also a defence against what some might call the ‘slippery slope’ of fee charging – the fear that fees for international students are the cracked door that will open up to fees for domestic students too. However, this isn’t necessarily the case.

In EU countries, students from within the bloc can’t legally be offered a worse deal than their domestic classmates, but differentiation between these two groups and non-EU students is the norm. In some, like Scotland and Austria, EU students pay no tuition fees. Scotland’s former first minister, Alex Salmond, famously once said “rocks would melt in the sun” before he would let universities charge domestic and EU students tuition.

“Universities now have a much more professional approach to international education”

While the obvious fear for universities is that introducing fees may trigger a mass exodus of international students, those with experience say it also brings opportunity. “It has contributed significantly to creating an awareness amongst Danish universities of the global market for education,” says Morten Overgaard, head of international affairs at Technical University of Denmark. “Universities now have a much more professional approach to international education than they had before.”

While there are certainly lessons for Finland to learn from its Nordic cousins, parallel tectonic shifts in the landscape of international education must also be acknowledged. Students worldwide are now more internationally mobile and universities have made internationalisation a much bigger part of their agenda.

Because of this, Finland is in some ways in a better position to accommodate the new fee structure than Sweden. Many universities have already begun to think about international strategies, and the long-drawn-out debate means they’ve seen it coming. They are certainly aiming to be more prepared.

“Quite early on in the process, our senior management agreed to a substantial increase to our marketing budget. New materials have been created and our digital marketing approach was intensified,” explains Markus Laitinen, head of international affairs at the University of Helsinki.

Nevertheless, international recruitment in Finland is a much more low-key affair than it is in many study destinations, partly because there isn’t the same financial incentive for aggressive recruitment that there is in destinations like the UK, where higher education funding is supplemented by fee income.

And these benefits only materialise if tuition fee revenue goes straight to universities – which it won’t in the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg. From this year, non-EU students will pay €1,500 a semester, but most of that will go to the state to fill a €48m funding gap.

Unlike private institutions, which can already charge fees, public universities are “highly underfinanced and have little to no commercial drive (often for legal reasons)”, observes Rickmann at EBC Hochschule, a private institution that charges around €4,000 a semester. “The possibility to build an actual business model could open a totally new dynamic in terms of internationalisation,” he argues.

However, a challenge lies in making students aware that paying to study in a small town may still be cheaper than studying in a fee-free but more expensive city. This tendency to notice the proverbial €0 sign before looking at other expenses can lead to disappointment.

“Many students withdraw their enrolment after the reality of the costs of living hits them”

Pekot at the University of Stavanger explains, “Some students are naively under the impression that they will not need much funding to sustain themselves in one of the most expensive countries in the world.” International students in Norway can’t access the state loan fund, and must provide proof of financing to the tune of around €12,000.

“Many students withdraw their enrolment after the reality of the costs of living hits them,” Pekot says. Those inclined to think that this miscalculation indicates a lack of forethought are likely to fall into the camp that believes tuition fees will help to filter out non-serious applicants.

Whether or not pricing out students is a fair way of selecting applicants is a contentious topic, and fees have clearly impacted international student demographics. Jonkoping University, for example, has seen a big increase in students from India and China in recent years, but, “Many students from specific developing countries in mainly Africa disappeared because they couldn’t afford it,” says Bengtsson.

While this is certainly a negative, universities have also seen some of the positive filtering effect predicted by the government. Bengtsson says: “I believe that before the fees, some students just tried to escape from their home countries and didn’t have any real interest to study.”

This argument will no doubt be front of mind in the remaining handful of tuition-free nations as they look to see how things play out in Finland and Baden-Württemberg. Whether they will lead to a domino effect elsewhere in Europe remains to be seen. In the meantime, universities’ goal is simple, says Laitinen. “We are, of course, looking at attracting the best possible students.”

  • This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in The PIE Review edition 14.

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