Skip to content

Should some people be barred from pursuing higher education?

By Luke Davies

Luke can now be followed on Twitter.

Anders Breivik, the 34-year-old Norwegian man responsible for the death of 77 and wounding of 232 people in an attack in 2011, has been enrolled in political science modules at the University of Oslo. The attack Breivik carried out, which happened on 22 July 2011, was motivated by a fear of the “Islamisation” of Europe and was meant to defend Norway from immigration and multiculturalism. Despite an initial assessment to the contrary, Breivik was held to be sane at the time of the attack, and therefore capable to stand trial. He was sentenced to 21 years in jail.


While Breivik didn’t meet the formal requirements for entry into a degree-granting program, the university was clear from the start that it would assess his application only on its merits. His recent enrollment as a non-degree student has caused some controversy—though, it should be said, he is not permitted to leave the prison. Some survivors of the attack believe that Breivik shouldn’t be allowed to study, and of respondents to a Guardian poll asking whether he should be offered a spot at the university 67% replied ‘No’.


The spokesman for the university itself seemed to have two replies to those who oppose Breivik’s enrollment. The first is simply that there is a policy that determines the way in which applications are assessed, and that policy will not be changed for any of the individuals who apply. In Norway, inmates are allowed both to study and work (according to Wikipedia, they are even allowed internet access, though Breivik is not). Second, there is some indication that members of the university believe the actual modules Breivik will study are a reason for him to be permitted to enroll. Ole Petter Otterson, the Rector of the University of Oslo, said the following in comments, titled “Why Anders Breivik is welcome at our university,” published in The Guardian:

Having been admitted to study political science, Breivik will have to read about democracy and justice, and about how pluralism and respect for individual human rights, protection of minorities and fundamental freedoms have been instrumental for the historical development of modern Europe.

It seems clear from the first reply, however, that the second is meant only to assuage lingering concerns about Breivik’s entitlement to enroll. It seems to say, ‘If you aren’t satisfied that there is policy followed for every prospective student, maybe you’ll be happy to know that the subject he has chosen will bring him into contact with material that might change his mind.’

The question I would like to put forward here is: Is there anything a person can do that would take away his or her entitlement to pursue a higher education? To my mind there are two possible interpretations of this question: 1) Is it possible that some act would justify a prohibition on future pursuit of education? And, 2) Is there some use of education that would warrant prohibition of its pursuit? Breivik presents an interesting case both because he committed a violent crime, and because he is open about wanting to continue to promote his cause from prison.


That being said, I don’t think that the first question really warrants extended discussion. What possible connection could there be between committing a crime, albeit an extremely violent one, and pursuit of education? By virtue of the fact that we are talking about prison inmates, it is a given that basic liberties will already have been taken away. To assert that other entitlements should also be waived would require some significant argument. I for one can’t imagine an argument for such a restriction that is not excessively retributivist (though I would be keen to hear).   


The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 26(2), which covers education can be read as presenting us with an interesting ambiguity. It reads:

Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

While I am inclined to believe that the authors of the Declaration would like us to read this as a guide for educational institutions and their employees (as an indication that the right to education is served only if that education promotes human values) we can also read it as a requirement on those said to hold the right. That is, we can read it as stating that a condition of having the right to education is that it only be used to further certain aims. If we use education to further a hateful cause, we forfeit our right to that education. Read in this way, the right to pursue higher education is not inalienable; and, arguably, Breivik would be a candidate for loss of his right. This would amount to a positive response to the second question.

I doubt that this is the right way to think about education. The pursuit of an education in a certain subject doesn’t seem amenable to a consequentialist analysis in the same way as the use of that education is. I am hesitant to say that knowledge acquisition can, in itself, be a bad thing (though it can certainly be good). The way in which subjects are taught can have bad consequences, or be wrongful, but learning itself cannot.[1] But, if this is the case, then there is no reason to restrict a person’s access to education itself.

To return to Breivik: Given that he will not be permitted to leave the prison, and has not been granted internet access, I don’t think that the fact he committed a violent crime should bar him from enrolling as a non-degree student at the University of Oslo.



[1] Though I’m unable to spell out how this would work here, I think that ‘learning’ in this context should exclude anything a person comes to believe as a result of prejudicial or hateful motivations (on the part of the person himself, or whomever is teaching him). Certainly people learn to act prejudicially if they are around racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., people, but I think this can be distinguished from the more formal, institutional learning of higher education (at least, I hope that it can). Can the latter form, learning for its own sake.

Share on

21 Comment on this post

    1. Having Breivik know how to make a nuclear bomb does not matter as long as he is not allowed access to fissile materials in prison.

      It seems that the real consequentialist issue is whether he might become able to perform harmful acts without leaving prison or doing anything physically (writing really compelling political essays, upsetting people efficiently, or generating information hazards).

  1. And I would like to refer to “I am hesitant to say that knowledge acquisition can, in itself, be a bad thing (though it can certainly be good).” I know quite a few historians who while studying genocides got seriously depressed, some war reporters are known to get addicted to going to really risky areas to get information for their stories, not to mention that philosophy can make you question whether life is worth living at all.

    1. Thank you for both comments.

      With regards to the first, I assume that you mean to imply that Breivik would study nuclear physics for the sake of some destructive purpose. That’s a hard question. In normal cases, we don’t look to a person’s motivation when deciding whether or not they can learn about a given subject. But, given that we know of Breivik’s desire to continue to promote his cause, there would definitely be reason to consider barring him from pursuit of that study. I’m still inclined to separate pursuit and use of education, but have to think more about it.

      With regards to the second, I would still want to say that knowledge acquisition is a good, even in those cases (though the example of war reporters is harder). In the end, I think that I would like to either defend the view that the benefit of learning about depressing, or difficult, issues is greater than the loss suffered, or that we shouldn’t think about education in consequentialist terms at all. Though, again, cases in which a person is at risk pose a considerable challenge to both of those views. Thanks again.

  2. It doesn’t really matter what he’s doing in prison, as long as he’s not allowed to leave. He’s locked away for what must surely be the soundest reason for locking anyone away – he’s proved himself highly dangerous to other human beings. Given the other potentially violent nutcases out there who might see him as some kind of hero, it should also be important to ensure that he’s not able to crusade for his “cause” in the world outside the prison, via the internet and suchlike. It seems this is also being guarded against. So how he spends his days shouldn’t be a matter of great concern.

  3. I agree with you, Luke. It seems to me that the objection to Breivik pursuing this degree course likely relates to fact that, by being allowed to choose to enrol on the course, he is being allowed to exercise a certain freedom. I assume that nobody would find it objectionable if prisoners like him (i.e. people locked up for crimes motivated by dubious political beliefs) were *required* to study this sort of course in an effort to reform them. Yet, even granting that pursuing the degree is an exercise of freedom, given that he is not allowed to leave the prison or use the internet, it seems comparable with the other freedoms permitted to prisoners, such as reading books, interacting with each other, or playing pool.

    People may also object to it because they associate gaining a degree with securing an advancement in one’s prospects in life, i.e. those with degrees generally have better employment prospects than those who do not, other things being equal. Perhaps prisoners should not be allowed to benefit from their time in prison by gaining such advantages. But, even if Breivik is ever released, having a degree is unlikely to make him more employable, assuming that employers are unwilling to hire convicted mass murderers with narcissistic personality disorder. It may be that other prisoners convicted of ‘tamer’ crimes may gain an employment advantage by taking a degree while in prison. Even so, there would be a consequentialist argument for allowing prisoners to gain qualifications in order to help facilitate their reform and (in some cases) eventual rehabilitiation – although presumably we would want to avoid a situation where the increasing costs of higher education give people an incentive to get themselves incarcerated as a means of gaining a degree.

    1. I get the argument for giving prisoners opportunities to study to help improve their prospects, etc. But I don’t see much of a case for taxpayer subsidy for mass murderers. If shooting a bunch of people doesn’t disqualify you from being able to put your hand in other people’s wallets*, I’m not sure what could. As for his politics – is that even relevant? Would it be different if he shot people because he were a Maoist, or some kind of mad anarcho-libertarian?

      *I appreciate we subsidise prisoners in terms of food, shelter, etc. But the prime beneficiaries of those expenditures are everyone not in prison. Subsidising skills acquisition for prisoners themselves seems a weaker case, to me.

      1. Thanks Rebecca and Dave.

        One thing that might help in thinking about this case in particular is that Norway has a very low rate of recidivism. I don’t know enough about the prison system there (and how it compares to elsewhere) but we might think that the option to stay connected with the world plays a significant role in this. If a person is able to gain some qualifications while in jail, and thereby have a better chance at seamless re-integration upon leaving, isn’t that desirable? (Though I agree with you, Rebecca, that we ought to a avoid a scenario in which people have an incentive to go to prison).

        With regards to your point, Dave: If we agree that it’s a good thing to give prisoners the opportunity to improve their prospects, then is it consistent to say that we should bar those who most need that from participating? My worry in that case is that you would (potentially) block one of the ways in which a person who really needs it could be given more options. In the case of Breivik, it might be that we don’t think he can change, in which case that might be an argument for a longer sentence.

        1. Luke wrote: “With regards to your point, Dave: If we agree that it’s a good thing to give prisoners the opportunity to improve their prospects, then is it consistent to say that we should bar those who most need that from participating? My worry in that case is that you would (potentially) block one of the ways in which a person who really needs it could be given more options. In the case of Breivik, it might be that we don’t think he can change, in which case that might be an argument for a longer sentence.”

          I agree they should be given the option to improve their prospects. I don’t know that the state should subsidise this option. Make ’em take out a loan like the rest of us…

          1. Right. I agree with you on that, Dave, but only in cases in which the university is private. But, if we are thinking about many Norwegian universities, and the University of Oslo in particular, that isn’t the case. Do you think that Breivik (and other prisoners) should pay despite the fact that no other Norwegian citizens have to?

            1. Luke wrote: “Do you think that Breivik (and other prisoners) should pay despite the fact that no other Norwegian citizens have to?”

              I think the opportunity should be there, but I don’t see why the state should pick up the tag for prisoners course costs. They already get accommodation and meals, which is more than most students. I think prisoners should have to pay course costs, too. I don’t see the problem in removing privileges (like free study) from prisoners.

              1. I am not sure one can compare things like this. The reason people are kept in prison in Norway is for security of others citizens, so this is what the price is for. (It is like buying a lock for your house, also extra cost, and this that usually you don’t need to get a lock for each door within the house or ideally should not need any lock anywhere, doesn’t change anything.). I believe too that most people in Norwegian prisons do work*, also if they could get better work after leaving prison or while still in it due to better education, it benefits the country in the end.

                *please note too that social democracies do support many citizens: sick etc

                1. Maybe it benefits the country in the end to have a better-educated sort of prisoner. My point is: even if you think the taxpayer is obliged to underwrite every normal young person’s tertiary education, I’m not sure it necessarily follows that prisoners like Breivik have all the same rights & privileges as normal, non-mass-murdering young people. Personally, I think there are problems with preventing him from studying. And I think there are problems with him studying at taxpayers’ expense given his contribution so far to Norwegian society. So I favour not compelling Norwegians to underwrite his education, and allowing him to study. Make him pay for the privilege of studying. It’s reasonable for societies to offer weaker support to people who choose to damage society, just as societies honour those who contribute disproportionately.

                  1. I am not so certain that people who are able to commit such horrible crimes are really fully responsible for their actions and the courses university allowed him to take might be kind of therapeutic, but I do understand your concerns (pointed it out myself indeed when someone else wrote that: “how he spends his days shouldn’t be a matter of great concern”) and would not oppose on ethical ground if some conditions would be put for him to meet to be able to take the courses.
                    By the way I am curious how many prisoners use

                  2. Thanks, Dave.
                    I think you’re right to say that prisoners shouldn’t be assumed to have the same rights and privileges as non-criminals. Making them pay for the education that they could have otherwise taken for granted might be a good way to strike a balance.

      2. I appreciate that we should want to keep a check on resources spent on prisoners. But, I don’t think subsidising Breivik’s politics modules is unusual in that its prime beneficiary is Breivik, rather than people not in prison. The news reports about this story tell us that some prisoners (not Breivik) get internet access. I understand that prisoners are also often provided with TVs, books, and modest recreational facilities like sports equipment. None of these things benefit people outside prison – although they might indirectly benefit prison staff by making prisoners happier and easier to deal with than they would be if they were locked up with nothing to do. It would be hard to justify spending more on Breivik than on other prisoners, but this could be avoided if he had to forego certain privileges in return for being allowed to study, or if he had to perform certain duties to ‘earn’ extra privileges.

    1. Plus University of Oslo is a public university, you do no pay tuition fee there, that is why Norwegians were/are entitled to express their opinion.

  4. I think this issue at least in part turns on who would be barring Breivik – the Norwegian government, or the University of Oslo. (I realize the University is public, but I still think the distinctions below are still relevant)

    For a governmental ban, I agree that there is strong reason to resist any such ban. Beyond the concerns you bring up, it is hard to imagine a policy that doesn’t go too far – effectively barring felons from higher education, which in turn would significantly harm rehabilitation efforts. Perhaps Breivik is beyond reform (which makes me worried about the mere 21 year sentence, but I’m not familiar with the Norwegian justice system…), but others are not, and it would be unfortunate to cut off such tools.

    But I think the case for a given university, such as the University of Oslo, barring Breivik is much stronger. Consider that *many* acts far short of murder are sufficient to reject someone from a program. Some are purely academic – grades, cases of plagiarism, writing sample quality, etc. But others have only a tenuous relation to academia, and are more concerned with building a certain sort of desirable student body. This will include extracurriculars, enthusiasm for the school, legacy admits, even assessments of personality in the statement of interest. And even affirmative action is sometimes justified not for academic reasons, but furthering social justice. At the same time, I don’t think it would be fair to saddle universities with a responsibility to contribute to rehabilitation of criminals by substantially altering admission policies, including them where they otherwise would be excluded.

    So, if it’s fair enough to take all sorts of personal background details into account in applications, why not extreme violent behavior? The University of Oslo has a mission to build a certain sort of student body, and it’s perfectly fair they would not want that body to include extremely violent and hateful individuals who are unrepentant of the death and pain they caused. If that’s not enough, I think Breivik’s abhorrent views on race, immigration and violence should be relevant for exclusion. Academia prides freedom of expression, but that doesn’t mean they must ignore an applicants’ clear support of racism/xenophobia/extreme violence – indeed, Universities are typically established with certain inclusive values that Breivik is actively opposing.

    The University of Oslo has sent one sort of message of inclusiveness and openness by seemingly choosing to ignore Breivik’s crimes in his application. That’s fair enough. But excluding Breivik for his actions or views would send another message, one that the University has no tolerance for the violence and vile hatred he continues to espouse. This also would be quite acceptable, and I very much sympathize with those who wish the University had taken this latter route.

    1. Owen, this is a useful distinction, and I agree that the University of Oslo would have a strong case for barring Breivik. You mention the criteria it uses for making admissions decisions. I think it is also relevant to consider the criteria it uses for excluding, on grounds of misbehaviour, students who are already enrolled. When a university student commits a serious crime like murder or rape, I think the public expects the university to take some sort of action (usually excluding the student). It would, however, be difficult for a university to justify such an exclusion if it has already accepted a convicted mass murderer onto one of its programmes.* Perhaps it could argue that, unlike misbehaving students who are yet to be punished, Breivik is already convicted, incarcerated, and poses no threat. But, I think that would be to overlook the consideration that one reason for excluding certain students relate to – as you put it – ‘a mission to build a certain sort of student body’.

      *I realise that Breivik is taking individual modules rather than a degree programme, and that his application for the latter was denied. However, I understand that this denial was based on academic considerations, rather than moral ones.

Comments are closed.