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Distinctions blur, steering differentiates

Higher education worldwide is transforming in ways that could increase differentiation, contends the University of Oslo’s Professor Peter Maassen. Traditional distinctions – between universities and colleges, academic and professional, rural and urban – are being replaced by sets of indicators and standards used by governments and agencies to steer tertiary systems. Impending higher education reforms in Norway are likely to opt for a model that stresses differentiation within rather than between institutions.

Maassen is one of a 12-member National Commission on Higher Education charged with making proposals regarding the structure of higher education in Norway for the coming 20 years. The Commission’s just-published report, which he said would suggest moving change dynamics from the system to the institutional level, will be used by the Minister of Higher Education and Research to inform a White Paper to go before Parliament later this year.

“Higher education is in a state of institutional transformation and flux”, said Maassen in a presentation to the CHET seminar titled The Norwegian Commission on Higher Education: Beyond university/college, academic/professional, and urban/rural distinctions.

The nature of institutional change is not ‘business as usual’, an autonomous internal process of incremental reform, but involves fundamental transformation because “the legitimacy of higher education’s mission, organisation, functioning, moral foundation, ways of thought and resources are being doubted and challenged,” he said.

“The traditional pact between higher education and society is deemed to be no longer valid, and there is not yet a new pact. This is to a large extent caused by far-reaching change processes in the socio-economic and political environments of higher education institutions. In addition, many changes taking place within institutions are a result of internal, intra-institutional, and intra-disciplinary processes and decisions,” Maassen argued.

A pact – as opposed to a contract based on continuous calculation of expected value by self-interested authorities, external groups, staff and students – would entail a long term cultural commitment to and from higher education, a system founded on its own rules of appropriate practices, beliefs and resources but also validated by the society in which it is embedded.

“In Norway, this concept is relevant because the country sees higher education as a public responsibility, not that of the market,” he added.

“In Europe, governments are not necessarily seeking more intervention but different kinds of intervention. In many European countries market steering was advocated, but there is a growing realisation that higher education is a state responsibility and that governments should set frameworks for it. Part of the debate is what kind of frameworks promote the development of differentiation, but also ensure adherence to high standards.”

Norway’s post-school sector

Like most European countries, during the 1960s Norway built a college sector parallel to universities to provide professional higher education. This development was related to the rise of ‘third generation’ (welfare state) professions such nursing, teaching, administration and ICT, and also to the need to provide higher education to non-traditional students.

As happened with earlier professions, ‘third generation’ professions were initially offered by ‘non-universities’ and had to grow through a process of becoming institutionalised.

“There were problems with status at first, but the sector experienced rapid growth and became an example of highly effective system-level differentiation,” Maassen said. “Among other things it allowed large numbers of non-formal students to enrol in a system that would not have been possible if programmes were not available”.

Problems began in the early 1990s when Norway allowed, then later stimulated, a gradual overlapping of the higher professional education sector with the university sector. There had been a social upgrading of ‘third generation’ professions, they had become institutionalised in colleges and there were no longer enough places for students.

Also, there was a need for research into professional practice, which universities were not interested in, so colleges were allowed to conduct research. Finally, institutional, regional political and private sector ambitions came into play: “Every region wants to have its own university,” said Maassen.

By 2000 the ‘European dimension’ of higher education had grown in importance and many colleges were conducting research. In 2002 the Bologna process – which Norway was quick to implement – led to an equal degree structure for the country’s four research universities and 26 other institutions.

Professional colleges were allowed to develop doctoral and masters programmes, a National Quality Agency was in place, and space opened up for colleges that could fulfil specific conditions to upgrade to university status.

Change drivers and differentiation

Most higher education systems have experienced sets of ‘change drivers’ that have shifted them away from traditional structures, regulatory frameworks and practices, Maassen said.

Internationally, change has blurred the boundaries between research universities and ‘non-universities’ such as colleges and polytechnics, and so steering differentiation can no longer be done through this traditional distinction. The word ‘university’ now covers a diversity of institutional types.

There are expanding numbers of students in professional programmes in all types of institutions, and cooperation across traditional sector and country borders is growing in importance, as is the ‘third mission’ of institutions: service and innovation. “Politically higher education has become more important, but less special,” Maassen said.

In Norway, reform has placed pressure on professional colleges to aim for university status, and there has been fragmentation of research and postgraduate training, spreading this funding across too many institutions. There has been ‘academisation’ of bachelor-level professional degree programmes while rural (regional) higher education and the need to strengthen research infrastructure “have become major political issues”.

Two alternative models

There are four major differentiation challenges facing Norway today, Maasen explained.

First, the move from four to seven universities “with many more to come”. Second, there are now 18 institutions offering PhD programmes. Third, serious quality problems exist in some professional degree programmes. Finally, there has been a policy of ‘spread regionalisation’, massive migration of young people from rural to urban areas, and a shortage of senior academics in colleges.

Two possible solutions to differentiation, among other things, have been investigated by the National Commission on Higher Education and proposed for Norway, said Maasen:

Model 1: Regional universities

The ‘regional universities’ model uses geography as its starting point and stresses intra-institutional differentiation. All institutions in a region would have to merge into one regional university integrating the traditional distinctions that steered differentiation – urban-rural and university-college.

Regional universities would have three governance layers, minimum numbers of students, a traditional university and college mission, all PhD programmes would need to be located in research schools, and higher education would be steered through three-year agreements between universities and government.

The regional dimension is important in countries like Norway. All institutions have a major role to play in their local and regional labour market, most graduates start work in the vicinity of their alma mater, and “discourse around the knowledge economy gives higher education institutions a very central place in the development of new knowledge infrastructures”.

Model 2: Differentiation

This model has differentiation as its starting point and change dynamics as its focus. It could include the following features.

All institutions would need to fulfil minimum requirements with regard to size and quality, and some would have to merge so as to be eligible for public funding.
There would either be two main types of universities – research-intensive and applied-professional – or all institutions would be allowed to use the name university.
All institutions could develop doctoral programmes but under strict approval demands and only if they were organised in research schools.
Differentiation in the nature of PhD and masters programmes would be stimulated.
All institutions would develop a profile and mission based on dimensions such as research and teaching orientation, levels of study, relationships with industry, contract income, international relationships and regional role.
The profiles would form the basis of a multi-year agreement between the Ministry of Education and each institution, including indicators such as student numbers, through-put rate, the number and nature of graduates, and research output.
An independent body would evaluate the profile of each institution, rewarding development according to profile and ‘punishing’ profile-drift.
The Ministry would steer the sector on the basis of system-level issues and needs.
Funding of teaching would be the same for all institutions, but funding for research would be differentiated.


While the regional model encourages differentiation between institutions and programmes, the differentiation model – probably the more likely to be adopted – stresses differentiation within institution and employs indicators to steer the higher education system. Maassen said that while neither model had consequences for funding of teaching, both had implications for research funding and “imply a need to further professionalise institutional management”.

Maassen concluded that Norway is too small to have world class research (regional) universities, and would be better advised to aim at achieving high quality in existing research and teaching programmes – and to send its best students abroad. By contrast, under the differentiation model everything would be possible, “in a positive as well as a negative way”.
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