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Nordic students in Europe fall victim to physical land borders

Nordic students in Europe fall victim to physical land borders

| Text: Lars Bevanger, photo: private/Thea Høyer

An entire generation Nordic students have grown up in a borderless Europe. Thousands are studying in other European countries. Most went back home in March as old borders started being reinstated because of the coronavirus.

On 28 February 2020, the Swedish ambassador to the UK, Torbjörn Sohlström, addressed Nordic students at City Hall in London.

“Some [of you] have been really concerned, some of you have found the process really frustrating and difficult to understand,” he told them. He was talking about the students’ future status in the UK after Brexit, an issue which up until then had both engaged and worried many foreign citizens living in the country.

Little did he or any of the others in the hall know that few short weeks later, borders between the UK and the Nordic countries would be all but shut, and the majority of the students would have returned back to their home countries – unsure about when they could return.

International career put on hold?

Johannes Kvisselien from Oslo moved to London in the autumn of 2019 to begin his bachelor’s degree in International Social and Political Studies at University College in London (UCL). 

“I went home again on 15 March. That’s when Norway was about to close the borders, and my family started getting worried, he says.

Johannes Kvisselien

Johannes Kvisselien, photo: Knut Bry

For Kvisselien, who is hoping for an international career as a civil servant, closed borders have definitely thrown spanners in the works.

“In Norway, I could not find the degree I am studying fo rin London now. It is clearly worth a lot for me to be able to travel and find the environments I want to engage with. It also gives me an international network which is impossible to gain in Norway."

Kvisselien can still follow his course via online teaching which is being offered to all by UCL now, but he misses the companionship and the direct contact with his university professors. He hopes to be able to return in the autumn, but takes nothing for granted.

“We still don’t know when this is going to end, so I have also applied for spaces at Norwegian universities in case I have to continue my education here,” he says.

Deprived of her liberty

Marie Solgard from Eidsøra near Molde in Norway is studying for a teaching degree in English and history. She has been busy writing her bachelor’s thesis at the University of York.  

“On 11 March I was still planning to go on trips around the UK. I wanted to visit Edinburgh for instance, but one day later I was booking my flight home to Norway. My family advised me to return as the borders were about to close,” Solgard says.

Marie Solgard

Marie Solgard, photo: private

She describes feeling deprived of her liberty. Solgard was attending the Norwegian Study Centre at the University of York, which has received some 1,100 Norwegian English students each year since it was founded in 1982.

“This has been a very strange situation to be in for a centre which was built to welcome Norwegian students, and whose entire reason for being is just this,” says Erik Tonning, the centre’s leader. 

“We have had many messages of support from institutions in Norway, and promises that students will be arriving after this too. It is very inspiring to hear this,” he says. Solgard and the other students on her course are now offered online tuition.

Higher than the EU average

There are no precise statistics for how many Nordic students travel to other European countries to study. According to the report "Nordic Students Abroad", published by the Finnish welfare agency KELA in 2010, there were then more than 50,000 students from Nordic countries at foreign universities. 

The number varies a lot between the different Nordic countries, but all have a higher number of students abroad than the EU average, which is around 4%. 

The report’s authors, Miia Saarikallio-Torp and Jannecke Wiers-Jenssen, believe this is due to the Nordics being relatively small, with a rather peripheral position in Europe, both geographically and linguistically. Hence, there is a greater need for citizens with international experience and linguistic and cultural skills. 

“I still have not met anyone who says they regret going to study in a foreign country. They tell me they have expanded their network with friends from the whole world, they have learned a new language, acquired new knowledge and become able to put their own backgrounds into a more international context,” says Hanna Flood.

Hanna Flood

President of ANSA Hanna Flood. Photo: Thea Høyer 

She is the President of ANSA, the Association of Norwegian Students Abroad, which has been looking after these students’ interests since 1956.

Flood herself studied in the UK and Germany, and says that this allowed her to appreciate Norway even more.

“It really made me realise how lucky I am to have the support of the Norwegian system. Today’s situation is quite strange for me and my generation, who have grown up with completely free mobility, at least inside Schengen. It is not every day you see the foreign ministry issue advise against travel to all the countries of the world,” says Flood.

20% foreign students

Most international students go to the UK. According to the British parliament, 20% of all the students in the UK come from other countries, and nearly half of these are from other EU and EEA countries.

According to University UK, the organisation looking after the interests of British universities, international students contributed some 29 billion euro to the British economy between 2014 and 2015. Closed borders are clearly not something the universities can live with either.

As a result, many British universities are taking action to be able to offer tuition to existing students, and to make it easier for future international students to plan for next autumn.

“In just one week, we moved to what we call virtual classrooms. This means we can carry on with interactive lessons where students can discuss with their professor, participate in group sessions, projects and presentations,” says Anni Ritzler, advisor for Nordic students at Hult International Business School in London. 

Anni Ritzler

Anni Ritzler

The university has put a range of measures into place to make things easier for Nordic and other international students who are contemplating studies at Hult this autumn. This includes easing some rules on documentation, making deposits refundable and preparing for more virtual teaching in case closed borders will still prevent new students from being physically present as the new semester begins.

Cautiously optimistic

Since the borders closed, staff at ANSA have been extra busy providing advice to Norwegian students around the world. Hanna Flood says a sudden fall in the value of the Norwegian krone has also made student life particularly challenging for many.

“This makes things difficult because student loans and grants are given out in Norwegian kroner. Many have seen their rent increase quite dramatically,” she says.

MFA press release

There has never before been issued travel advise like the one issued by Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 14 March 2020.

Norwegian students in the UK who applied for support last year paid just over 10 kroner for one British pound. Today, one pound costs 13 kroner.

We still do not know when anti-infection measures like closed borders can be lifted, and different countries still find themselves in different phases of the pandemic. Deadlines for applying for university spaces at home and abroad are just around the corner. Hanna Flood at ANSA is cautiously optimistic.

"We do hope that the situation will allow for student exchanges to take place this autumn – if not everywhere, then in certain regions. The disease epicentre does move, and the WHO has said that the USA might be next. So it is important to stay calm, follow developments and look for opportunities and not just challenges,” says Flood.

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University College London

in 2014, when student life was quite different from in April 2020. Photo: Dilliff/Wikipedia


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