Acceso a la educación superior en países nórdicos
Noviembre 21, 2019
November 20th, 2019 – Alex Usher
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little bit about Nordic countries and some of the trade-offs they consider in order to keep tuition fees at zero when public funding is under stress. I thought I would complement this with a piece that looked at the access side of the Nordic system, both in terms of student aid and in terms of the kinds of access challenges that exist even in a free-tuition system.
To start with student aid: a very useful report came out a couple of weeks ago from the working group for Student Aid in the Nordic Countries (ASIN), entitled Students in Nordic Countries – Study support and economics (in Danish, but Google Translate is your friend). Now in these countries, not only is tuition free but student aid is universal. No messing around with need assessment, which means not only is everyone eligible for assistance, but the amount of assistance delivered is simply a flat allowance, equal for all (in theory, anyway – by my count about a third of bachelor’s-level students in Norway, Sweden and Finland don’t receive any student aid and it’s not clear to me why, though relatively short eligibility periods – that is, the number of years one may borrow – may be one reason).
As we see in Figure 1, which shows total aid available to students for a Canadian-style 8-month period of study (the loan amounts are maximums, students are not required to take any loan at all, but it can negotiated up to that amount). What you see is that the Nordics differ significantly with respect to aid. Iceland provides the most ($16,000 per year or so), but it is all loan. Denmark is, by most measures, the most generous with $15,000 in total and roughly a 2:1 grant/loan ratio, though grant aid is taxable in Denmark and so the “net” amount may be slightly lower than that. Norway, Sweden and Finland all provide lesser amounts with loans predominating (28% in the case of Finland, 30% in Sweden and 40% in Norway).
Figure 1: Student Aid Eligibility for an 8-month study period, Nordic Countries 2018
It’s hard to compare these numbers to the Canadian experience because need assessment and provincial variation in programs means Canada doesn’t have a “typical” amount of student aid. But broadly speaking, the Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish packages look a lot like what low-income Canadian students will be getting next year, assuming the Liberals pass their proposed changes to student aid. The difference, of course, being our students pay tuition and theirs don’t.
So, this is not a bad deal, right? Free tuition, easy grants, loans, etc. Students have all their needs taken care of, so they must be really able to study hard, right? Wrong. In Norway and Iceland over two-thirds of students have some paid employment during the school year, in Denmark 62%, and in Sweden and Finland roughly half work. That’s about the same as Canada – but in most countries in the region the number of hours worked is significantly higher than the Canadian average, which is around 18 hours per week.
Figure 2: Median Weekly Hours Worked, Among Full-Time Students in Paid Employment
Clearly, the idea that better student aid results in more hours of studying must not be correct, and that many students may be more interested in maximizing income than in studying. But still, that money must be buying something, right? Broader access to higher education, maybe? Fairer life chances?
Wellllll, no, not really. A recent review of literature on access to higher education in Nordic countries suggests that they all have more or less the same problems we have in Canada: students from higher social capital backgrounds more likely to attend post-secondary education.  Another study suggests that while Norway and Finland have reduced inequality over the last 30 years, Sweden and Denmark have not; moreover, as in North America, the advantage held by students from more privileged backgrounds is more pronounced in prestige fields like medicine than elsewhere.
But perhaps the most startling evidence about social background comes from this 2016 paper co-authored by Nobel laureate James Heckman comparing social mobility in Denmark and the United States. It contains the chart below, which never fails to amaze.
Figure 3: Proportion of 20-34 Year-Olds in Tertiary Education, by Parental Educational Attainment
So what does free education – not just free tuition but free tuition with major amounts of grants – buy you? It’s a lot less obvious that you’d think.


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