3.1 Higher education system
The Norwegian HE system consists of mainly public institutions with no tuition fees. The system is often described as binary. This stems from the division of labor between universities, providing longer professional education (in areas such as medicine and law) as well as liberal education at the undergraduate/bachelors and graduate/masters levels, and university colleges, mainly offering professional diplomas of three-year duration (in areas such as nursing and early childhood education) (Kyvik, 2008). There are generally only minor differences in prestige between institutions in Norway. Hence, unlike most other countries, the general prestige of a Norwegian university bachelor’s degree is only moderately higher than a bachelor’s degree from a university college in a similar field (Vabø, 2002).
However, there are some differences in prestige between different types of degrees, particularly that longer degrees, such as medicine, psychology, civil engineering and law, all taught at universities, are considered as holding slightly higher prestige in society. This is linked to both strong competition for admission to the program and to students completing the degree receiving a higher wage premium than other graduates (Borgen and Mastekaasa, 2018).
3.2 Admission to higher education
Upper secondary education consists of academic track and vocational track, where academic track qualifies for HE.Footnote 3 In each subject, students receive teacher assessed grades from 1 (lowest) to 6 (highest). In addition, students have externally graded oral and written examinations in certain subjects, where both the number of examinations and the examination subject are determined by a draw, except for written Norwegian, the only mandatory examination. The number of grades on a transcript will differ depending on track and subject choice but is usually about 25, including examination grades. The final transcript GPA is the basis for admission to HE.Footnote 4
The application system to HE is centralized and has included most HE institutions since 1996/1997 (Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, 2020). There are two quotas, the first quota and the regular quota, that differ in age limits and how total points are calculated, illustrated in Table 1.
In the first quota, only applicants aged 21 and younger are eligible. Grade points are calculated as the GPA of original transcript grades multiplied by ten, where each grade is given equal weight. A transcript GPA of 4.5 gives 45 grade points, while a transcript GPA of 5.5 gives 55 grade points, etc. In addition, the applicant can receive up to 4 additional subject points. Subject points incentivize students to take certain advanced science and language courses, by awarding 0.5-1 additional points per course.
In the regular quota, all applicants compete, as there is no age limit. This quota allows applicants to apply with grade points that have been improved by retaking examinations or passing examinations in new subjects. In addition to subject points, in this quota applicants receive up to 2 points for completing HE or military serviceFootnote 5 and up to 8 age points, 2 points per year from age 20 to 23.Footnote 6
The number of study places is equally distributed over the two quotas. Applicants automatically apply to all quotas where they are eligible, which implies that only applicants 21 and younger compete in the first quota, while all applicants compete in the regular quota. As such, applicants 21 and younger compete for 100% of the study places, while older applicants only compete for 50% of the study places. If an offer is not accepted, the next applicant in line within the same quota receives an offer.
When applying, applicants rank up to ten study program alternatives,Footnote 7 and applicants receive an offer at the highest ranked study program where they qualify and have sufficient points. The point limit for each study program is determined by the number of applicants, the number of study places available and applicants’ points.Footnote 8 Once offered a study program, applicants can decide to stay on the wait list for other study programs and may receive later offers if study places become available.
Our analysis focuses on the studies law and medicine, both five-year profession studies. For law, there is no requirement other than being qualified for studies in HE. Law is offered at the University of Oslo (UiO), the University of Bergen (UiB) and the University of Tromsø (UiT). For medicine, students are required to have completed certain science subjects in order to qualify.Footnote 9 Medicine is offered at UiO, UiB, UiT and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
When admission was centralized in 1996/1997, admission models varied across studies and institutions (see e.g. NUCAS, 1999). While some study programs required documented life/work experience, other study programs used age point as a simpler way of doing the same. In 2000/2001 this was changed and a common quota and point system was introduced for nearly all studies (Norwegian Ministry of Church Affairs, Education and Research, 1999). In the new admission model, the regular quota included age points equivalent to those we have today. Medicine received an exception, keeping their particular requirements for documenting life/work experience until 2009/2010, when they also changed to the common age point reward system (NUCAS, 2020). Although there have been some changes, the admission system as a whole has been fairly stable since its inception. This has contributed to the admission system being perceived as fair and predictable (Hovdhaugen and Carlsten, 2018).