The fate of Norwegian study centres across Europe looked to be hanging in the balance earlier this year, but innovations are helping to change their outlook.
In the past three decades Norway has established study centres with participation from several Norwegian universities in York, United Kingdom, in 1982; Caen, Normandy, France in 1983; Kiel, Germany in 1986; plus the Norwegian Institute at Athens, Greece, in 1989; and the Norwegian University Center in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1998.
Their mission is to teach students languages and culture, but also to further develop cultural ties with the countries hosting them.
These original centres mostly receive government funding but are operated by the universities themselves. In addition, the universities have also established several centres abroad, beyond Europe that are funded by the universities alone.
The four older Norwegian universities – of Oslo, Bergen, Tromsø and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology or NTNU – are founding members of the Norwegian study centres, and later the University of Agder and the NHH Norwegian School of Economics joined the Caen Normandy centre known as the Office of Franco-Norwegian Exchanges and Cooperation or OFNEC.
York has participation from all Norwegian higher education institutions except for one university college, out of 26. The German-Norwegian study centre in Kiel is owned by the four older universities and the NHH Norwegian School of Economics, and the institute in Athens was established by the Norwegian Council of Universities and was owned and funded by the four older universities through a joint enterprise.
In 2015, the cost of funding the five centres was NOK15 million (US$1.9 million). Today, however, their economic foundation looks uncertain.
Having played a prominent role in spearheading the internationalisation of these universities in the first decades after their founding, several of these centres have struggled against competition from the opportunities provided by Erasmus and the growing interest in study destinations beyond Europe after 2000 and notably so after 2010.
This led several of the participating institutions to set up evaluation groups looking into the cost-benefit factors of the activities run through the centres compared to other international activities, which led to several institutions withdrawing their participation.
New organisational discussions between the Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions or UHR and the participating institutions in both Norway and the host countries followed, and some centres took extraordinary measures to reinvent themselves.
With several Norwegian institutions beginning to question whether the centres were the best way to develop international linkages, some institutions withdrew while other centres broadened their appeal by expanding their offerings. For instance, on the basis of the very low number of Oslo students that had studied at the Caen Normandy centre, the University of Oslo decided to withdraw.
In May this year the Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions asked the national faculty meeting of the humanities to make recommendations for the running and funding of the centres.
According to a briefing note for the meeting, the University of Oslo terminated cooperation with the Caen centre from 1 January this year; the University of Tromsø ended its agreement with Caen Normandy, effective from the start of 2019 and its cooperation with the Athens centre from the start of 2018; NTNU terminated its agreement with the Athens centre from 1 June 2019, and its agreement with the St Petersburg centre from the same date.
Despite this, Caen Normandy is among a number of centres, including York, which are thriving after adapting their mission.
Professor Erik Tonning, seconded to the University of York from the University of Bergen, told University World News the centre is in constant use by all Norwegian universities offering English studies and is booked up for short courses (of one to two weeks) in every week in 2017-18, which translates into 1,400 student weeks.
“Our numbers for these courses have been consistently high for the last seven years,” Tonning says.
A contributing factor is the role of the centre in the national in-service teacher training programme, and in teacher-training courses generally, he says.
“Top-quality teaching” is combined with cultural enrichment in the form of theatre trips and guided historical tours.
“One key to our success in this area is that our teaching staff offer a wide choice of modules tailored to a range of Norwegian user institutions’ needs, but also know how to adapt their teaching level and approach to a variety of different groups and abilities, in order to grab and retain students’ attention from day one,” Tonning says.
Students who are taking a full-term course or whole-year course, bringing 30 ECTS credits per term in English language, literature and culture, benefit from intensive lectures, seminars and essay-focused research.
“York course students are given far more supervision and in particular help with their research and writing skills than is usually possible in Norwegian institutions,” Tonning says.
From the spring term of 2018 the centres will be designing an MA level version of the course.
Caen Normandy centre
OFNEC, at Caen in Normandy, has been weathering mixed fortunes. But the centre is looking towards the future with confidence as the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education or SIU has reaffirmed their support by signing a new agreement with Université de Caen Normandie.
Despite the withdrawal of the University of Oslo, the four other universities – Bergen, Agder and Tromsø and NTNU – are continuing to collaborate. But the University of Tromsø has decided that they will close their French section in 2019.
Annelie Jarl Ireman, director of OFNEC at the Université de Caen Normandie, says the decision will probably lead to a lack of French teachers in the large area in the north of Norway.
The three other Norwegian partner universities will continue to send their students to Caen Normandy on intensive courses in French language, literature and culture, with the added advantage of being located near D-Day landing beaches, monasteries and other sites of interest.
Ireman said: “OFNEC is a binational office that also develops common research projects, open to all areas of our pluri-disciplinary universities. This aims to strengthen the academic relations between the two countries. We also develop training programmes for Norwegian French teachers. The courses given by OFNEC provide ECTS credits to the students and to their home universities.”
For the moment only 24 students can be accepted on the one-year course on French and didactics, but there is competition for places with 80 applicants this year.
“This course almost had the same threshold for admission as the study of medicine in Norway this year, which indicates a strong interest among the students,” said Tore F Sveberg, director of studies at OFNEC.
An added impetus for centres in France and Germany is the ministry of education’s desire to establish masters degrees in these countries in engineering combined with economics, geared to Norwegian students.
To stimulate interest it has introduced a new grant in addition to support from the government’s loan fund, as part of the follow-up on the white paper to parliament on the strengthening of the humanities.
Professor Annlaug Bjørsnøs, head of the institute of languages and culture at NTNU, who is administering OFNEC on behalf of the participating institutions, told Universitetsavisa, NTNU’s web-based newsletter, that there is a 500% increase in students, albeit from two students to 12, wanting to take the bachelor degree in French and a 31% increase in students for a bachelor degree in German this autumn, and she hopes that this is the first step towards countering the downward trend over many years in recruitment of students in languages.
She attributed this to the hard work of her staff on the recruitment front, to the help of the humanities white paper, but also to the ‘Tupperware’ effect of people spreading the word that the study environment in Caen is good with closer follow-up of students compared to studies in Norway.
Humanities to be strengthened and made more relevant
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters