Norway-USA in contrast: A brief look at two education systems
M. Michael Brady
Norway spends nearly 7% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education, the fourth highest commitment among OECD countries. In comparison, the U.S. commitment is sixth highest, and both countries spend appreciably more than the OECD average of about 5% of their GDPs. Although the overall allocations of financial resources to education are similar, the educational systems of the two countries differ, principally because the USA is 30 times larger than Norway and has 64 times as many people. In the USA, state and local governments are primarily responsible for education. In Norway, as in most European countries, the central Ministry of Education has the prime responsibility. These differences complicate comparing education in the two countries in a single article in this newspaper. So here the focus is on the aspects of the Norwegian educational system as it functions in everyday affairs.
The Norwegian system is similar to those elsewhere in Europe and is divided into three levels:
• Primary and lower-secondary schools, compulsory for six- to 16-year-olds.
• Upper-secondary schools, elective for 16- to 19-year-olds.
• Higher education, elective for young adults and offering degree programs at universities, university-level institutions, and colleges.
Moreover, an adult education system offers courses parallel to these three levels. Most educational institutions are public. Though comparatively smaller, private education is a growing sector. Most teaching is in Norwegian, but primary schools offer mother-tongue instruction for children from other cultures. Some upper secondary schools, colleges, and university departments offer courses in other languages, principally English.
Involvement in education is widespread. Some nine of ten 16- to 18-year-olds now attend upper-secondary school, and one in four 19- to 24-year-olds pursues higher education. Women now account for six out of 10 university graduates, though men still are in the majority in postgraduate studies and in research.
In the 1980s and 1990s, higher education was reorganized across Europe to meet the changing needs of ever more mobile populations. The most noticeable aspects of the reorganization were triggered by the issuing in 1988 of the Magna Charta Universitatum by a meeting of European university rectors at the University of Bologna in northern Italy to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the university, the world’s oldest. That led in 1999 to the Bologna Declaration signed by the Education Ministers of 29 European countries, describing the Bologna Process of agreements that ensure compatible standards for and quality of higher education across Europe. Its principal action was to introduce a uniform three-cycle system (Bachelor, Master, and Doctorate degrees) that replaced the many dissimilar systems then used.
Other Pan-European educational incentives followed, notably the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) system of teaching, learning, and scale of language proficiency implemented from 2001 on. The CEFR scale of six levels of proficiency is now applied across Europe in specifications of language proficiency. For instance, in Norway, proficiency in Norwegian to CEFR scale level B2 is required for entry into some professions and for admission to higher education. It corresponds to the American Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale level 2/2+ (as used by the Federal service).
Education has top priority. Accordingly, public sector upper secondary and higher education is fully financed by the government. So foreign students as well as Norwegians pay no tuition fees, but upon registration for a semester of study pay only a small semester fee for ancillary services including health, counseling, and access to student privileges, such as reduced fares on public transport. Private sector education is only partly financed by the government. Hence private schools and colleges levy tuition fees. The cost of higher education in the Oslo area illustrates the public-private difference in fees. The public sector University of Oslo charges only a semester fee of NOK600 ($73), while the private sector Norwegian Business School (BI) charges an MBA program annual fee of NOK 76,400 ($9,300) for Norwegian students and NOK 87,400 ($10,650) for foreign students.
Primary and secondary education is similarly divided. Public schools are fully financed by governmental agencies and consequently are free for all pupils. Private schools that teach the Norwegian curriculum may be partly financed by the government and accordingly charge only a part of the overall cost of teaching. Private schools that teach the curricula of other countries, such as the British, French, and German schools, are not financed by Norwegian governmental entities and consequently are more expensive.
The overall educational scene in Norway is increasingly international. It’s also increasingly complex (see Further reading and references). And for students, access to educational resources is highly automated. For example, upon acceptance for study at a Norwegian institution, a student may apply electronically from any country to Lånekassen, the “Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund” for financial support of upper secondary or higher education in Norway.
Further reading and references:
• Facts about education in Norway, 2016, Norway Statistics, January 21, 2016, 32-page 3.2 x 6 in. format booklet, ISBN 978-82-537-9268-6, and PDF, ISBN 978-82-537-9287-3.
• VOX, the Norwegian Agency for Lifelong Learning, comprehensive website selectable in Norwegian or in English.
• Study in Norway, international student guide to higher education website maintained by the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education (SIU).
• Lånekassen, the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund website that supports electronic application, selectable in Norwegian or in English.
• Utdanningsdirektoratet (Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training), the agency responsible for developing kindergarten, primary, and secondary education; website selectable in Norwegian or in English.
• Education at a Glance, 2015, OECD annual overview of state of education in the world with country comparisons, December 24, 2015, 564-page international standard A4 format (8.3 x 11.7 in.), ISBN 978-9264242081, and PDF, ISBN 978-9264242098.
• Eurypedia, The European Encylopedia on National Education Systems, published by Eurydice Network, a pan-European educational resource since 1980.
• The Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area, European Commission reference.
• Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR), Council of Europe basis for language education used in Europe and increasingly in other continents, available in 40 languages.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.