Bjørn Haugstad, junior minister for education in Norway’s new conservative-populist coalition government, has announced that the process to upgrade colleges to university status has been suspended because of quality concerns.
“Until we have evaluated the present process we will not award any new university status,” he said.
After reforms in 2003 it became possible for Norwegian colleges to become universities if they had four accredited doctoral and at least five masters programmes.
This led to great activity, with many institutions looking for mergers with others – this was also recommended by the ministry. Four new universities have been approved since 2003, and at least another four have published their intention to apply as soon as they feel ready.
The most recent new institution, the University of Nordland, was established on 1 January 2011 with PhD studies in business economics, professional practice, sociology and aquaculture.
The university now has 6,000 students, 640 employees and branches in several parts of northern Norway. It has an ambitious internationalisation policy, attracting students from all over the world to one of the most stunning and least polluted nature areas in the northern hemisphere.
Undoubtedly, status as a university released energy and self-confidence, demonstrated by its becoming the first Norwegian university to receive an Erasmus University Charter from Brussels in 2012 due to extensive provision of courses in English.
Nordland is but one example of the motivation and hard work at the new universities. Today, the only two institutions holding the Erasmus charter are new universities, while the four older universities have either not managed or not bothered to apply.
The main argument against upgrading colleges is that work on achieving accredited PhD and masters programmes has shifted their focus away from the professional education of teachers, nurses, engineers and others that was the rationale for their creation in the 1960s.
Dagens Næringsliv wrote that the motivation for getting university status was more about prestige than academic merit, and had resulted in colleges “that are neither delivering research at an international level nor high quality professional training”. The newspaper commended the government for taking this stand so early in its governing period.
Dagens Næringsliv was referring to the high proportion of students not managing to complete nursing education at regional colleges: there was a 40% failure rate at 15 such colleges in 2012. Among student teachers, three in 10 drop out during the first two years.
University World News spoke to Audun Rivedal, director of Bergen University College, which has worked hard to establish doctoral programmes and qualify for university status.
“We have been encouraged by parliament, several governments and the unions to motivate our academic staff to take doctorate degrees, and to develop doctorate programmes. The University Law clearly states that our teaching shall be based on research, and we have taken this seriously, for a long time,” said Rivedal.
There had been a “serious drive” among academics to develop research in the health sciences, teaching and public services, with the aim of achieving high quality competence at the intersection between academia and practice.
“Research groups in these fields are at the same level as those found at universities, and with regard to linking to praxis, university colleges clearly outperform universities, with doctorate programmes more relevant to the needs of society,” Rivedal continued.
“The Norwegian agency for accreditation has sharpened the requirements for accrediting doctorate programmes, so it is not a question of lowering quality at the university colleges. This has been acknowledged by politicians, and the message we now receive makes us ask if politicians do not trust their own decisions.”
The move towards more diversified PhD programmes in Norway had been a “success story”, he added. “We are therefore severely discouraged by the significant change of course announced by Bjørn Haugstad. This will have a negative impact on the quality of professional training in Norway.”
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