The Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education recently organized an event about the value of international students. My presentation was called Why international students should not come to Norway. This is what I said:
In the mid-1990s, the Norwegian government modified the "quota student" program that provided opportunities to students from underdeveloped countries. That modification heavily influenced my own contact with international students and also my contact with "the system" that had to process them. In the early few years of the program, students were funded for a year to learn Norwegian and then they could study for a couple of years to earn a master's degree.
For reasons I can only speculate on, that program caused some concern. Maybe it was too expensive; maybe learning Norwegian made the visiting students too easily integrated; I don't know. But in the mid-1990s, the program was changed and the scholarships were limited such that they could only be given to programs which were taught in English.
At that time, I was in Tromsø, working in the English Department. Our master's program already was in English, although for reasons I could never grasp, the system still required Norwegian proficiency to be admitted. The quota program change let us get around this and get more students, so we jumped on board. We added a program developed with our colleagues in general linguistics and the program grew and grew.
At least by the standards of the humanities.
Some years, we might get 10 new students, most of them on quota scholarships. Other years there could be as many as 15. As I recall, many of our students came from Central and Eastern Europe, and from Anglophone Africa.
With foreign students come challenges
In the early days of our program, selection of students was very important and the faculty members were heavily involved not only in selecting them but in integrating them into our program and into life in Tromsø. But then the program started growing. More and more students "out there" learned about these opportunities. More and more of our colleagues in other departments started lobbying for some of these quota scholarship to attract students to their programs. And then the challenges began to emerge. What were they?
- In some cases, there were concerns about falsified transcripts.
- Agents got into the picture and we would receive crates of nearly identical applications from scores of hopeful students from the same countries, all of whom had a legal right to an answer.
- Many would arrive with inadequate English skills. And, of course, their Norwegian skills were non-existent.
- Measures were attempted: Could we limit applications to partner universities? Could we ban applications that arrived via agents? Could we sharpen English requirements? Maybe best of all, could we get a national admissions system in place -- something that seemed more necessary when we realized that many students would apply to multiple Norwegian institutions?
From the perspective of those of us who were teaching, all these challenges and the increased interest in the scholarships meant fewer students to our specific program. We tried to compensate by recruiting more Western Europeans and North Americans. But that made problems, too, although to a certain extent of a different type. These students expected more service, they were talkative in class, especially the Americans. They needed help to find housing. They didn't do a very good job of integrating with Norwegians. In short, they just don't understand the Norwegian context.
Furthermore, they seemed obsessive about grades. Did you know, by the way, that over 40% of grades awarded in college classes in the US are "A"? What should we do with these students in Norway?!
As if all this weren't enough, we started getting more and more PhD positions, and would recruit some of our MA students to continue, while attracting others from abroad. At one point in the history of the Center of Excellence I led, over 90% of our PhD candidates were non-Norwegian.
This also triggered reactions, also from well-meaning colleagues. We should be careful that we don't get too many non-Norwegians, they would say. We've just become a training ground for American post-doc programs, they might hint.
A lack of curiosity?
What is all this skepticism? At times I've felt like too many of my dear colleagues would say that we could of course accept foreign students, but then they have to do things our way -- they should show substantial independence in negotiating bureaucracy; find their own housing; behave appropriately in class; don't ask many questions; don't be coming by my office all the time; and so on.
What kind of mindset leads to these attitudes? Is it just the comfort of homogeneity? Maybe a lack of curiosity?
In the face of these questions, I have to confess that I sometimes struggle to recommend a semester in Norway to students from other countries. When I see how institutions in the US receive foreign students and compare that to Norway, I get embarrassed on our behalf. We just aren't in the same league.
Sometimes I find myself thinking that until internationalization at home includes integration at home, we might just not be up to the task -- not until we realize that we, too, must integrate.
Sometimes I feel like we just really don't care so very much. And when we're talking about students who take the initiative to travel to another country to pursue a very special educational experience, to make their lives better, to improve the lives of their families and their home communities, sometimes I think that a little more humility in the face of being selected might be appropriate.
These are the kinds of reasons that sometimes make me hesitate to recommend Norway for non-Norwegians.
But then I try to turn these feelings into something a bit more productive.
- I remind myself that I don't have research on this, just my own anecdotal experience. I'm not making any firm claims here and I'm not describing a general situation - or if I am, that's accidental. I don't know what the situation really is. I have a few stories and a lotta attitude. And that's not basis for policy. I'm a researcher, after all. I believe in science. So I remind myself of that.
- I remind myself that there is tremendous value for a young person to experience being the other no matter the specific differences. And going abroad anywhere is one way to do that.
- I remind myself that the encounter with what some psychologists call benign neglect is a growth opportunity. It's not intentionally harming someone; it's just leaving them on their own, even when they might prefer otherwise.
- And finally, I remind myself that it's my job to convince my colleagues and adopted compatriots both inside and outside academia, of the value of receiving foreign students.
- It's my job to use public debate to move people beyond their irritation and exasperation with foreign students. It's my job. If they're not there, I haven't done the work I need to do.
So, how can I do that work better? What can I say? How can I convince others -- and myself -- that it's good for foreign students to come to Norway? What are the reasons it's important to have international students with us?
Local and global reasons for attracting foreign students
At this point, I just want to raise just two reasons, one of which I'll call the local reason and one of which I'll call the global reason.
The local reason includes the following points:
- If having international students makes our campuses more international, then we do a favor to our students and broaden their horizons.
- This might range from creating the circumstances for more teaching in English, to more exposure to other languages, to meeting with students with other cultural backgrounds, maybe even to meeting those who have experienced the worst humanity has to offer.
- The local reason can be things like highlighting the fact that integration is not something that is the responsibility of or exclusively in the domain of those who come to us, but rather that integration is also something that we have to be part of to make an international classroom.
- It can be affecting the culture of the classroom, where in some situations we see local students reporting that they have to change their study habits to keep up with the foreign students who in some cases work so much harder.
- It can be a better way to prepare candidates for encountering a fundamentally globalized workplace.
The global reason can be found in many domains too and the short version of it is that our global grand challenges will not be solved without international collaboration.
- To take a slightly more concrete example, just a few days ago, we all celebrated the 70th anniversary of the United Nations.
- And the United Nations has just recently announced 17 Sustainable Development Goals. I encourage all of you to read up on these and to think about them as you do your own strategic and political work.
- I won't go through all 17 of them, although I would claim that every single one of them highlights the need for preparing our students for a new reality and I would claim that such preparation must include time abroad and the encounter with international students at home.
- One of the goals is to Revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development.
- "A successful sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society. These inclusive partnerships built upon principles and values, a shared vision, and shared goals that place people and the planet at the centre, are needed at the global, regional, national and local level."
When I think about how to build partnerships, I think about all those quota scholarship students that came through the teaching programs I was involved in. I think about the PhD students who found their way to us as a place to start their academic careers.
These previous students are now an important part of my international network. But more importantly, they are part of my own education. They inspired me and motivated me. They helped me understand the world as it is and to form a vision of the world as I want it to be.
Creating even better conditions for international students will attract more of them. And when we do that, we are engaging more responsibly in the hard work of serving society.
Norway needs international students. Let's try to put our awareness of our extreme good fortune aside for a minute and imagine the possibility that we need them a lot more than they need us.
Attracting them is going to take some pretty fundamental changes. But if we manage to make those changes, Norwegian students and international students may find in each other a renewed foundation for hope.
And if we want to help solve the grand challenges of our time, that may be the best hope we have.