Nordic university reforms, diversification to continue

The Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have escaped the economic crisis cutbacks that have hit higher education in Europe, and have instead enjoyed expanding budgets. But governments are looking at ways for universities to supplement their funding, to ease the burden on state finances.

University World News probed Scandinavian higher education’s prospects for 2014 and talked to several professors and rectors about the challenges ahead.


The five Scandinavian countries have a total population of 25 million people including around 1.2 million tertiary students, and allocate among the highest proportions of gross domestic product to higher education and research in the world.

Some €8 billion (US$11 billion) in public money is spent on research in the five countries, with Sweden allocating 49% of research funding directly to universities, Denmark 46%, Norway 33.5% and Finland 29% – against the European Union average of 33.3%.

The percentage allocated directly to universities is an indicator of how great a degree of autonomy universities have in deciding research prioritisation. Additional public money is channelled through research and innovation agencies.

In recent decades, universities in Nordic countries have seen many reform proposals, several of which have been implemented.

The reforms have focused on: university autonomy from the state (Finland) and in particular institutional mergers (Denmark and Norway); university leadership and outside representation on governing bodies, and the chairing of boards by either the vice-chancellor (optional still in Norway) or an external chair; and the drive for income from sources other than the public sector, including charging tuition fees to students from outside Europe.

Quality has also been a focus in policy discussions. Centres of excellence, aimed at advancing frontier research, have been widely used by Nordic governments, and have now been introduced also for teaching in Norway and Finland.

In Denmark, an attempt last year by the government to introduce legislation that would lead to faster times to degree completion led to the largest student protests since the 1960s.

In all countries there were heated discussions on increased bureaucracy and extended use of New Public Management – methods to monitor and reward productivity using bibliometric measures and the ability to generate research funding from external sources.

Some 50,000 Nordic students are studying abroad for a full degree, costing governments more than €600 million in subsidies. Almost half of the students choose to study in universities in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

All countries have been discussing ways to encourage students to study in other countries, notably the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Norway, Denmark and Finland now each have a higher education and research minister with a masters degree in social science, all of them under 40 years of age. Sweden’s Jan Björklund is a military officer while Iceland’s Illugi Gunnarsson has an MBA from the London Business School.

Sweden: Quality and autonomy

Sweden introduced a new quality assurance system for higher education, drawing severe criticism from universities. This led to questions regarding the international recognition of Swedish degrees under standards recommended by the European quality assurance agency ENQA.

A proposal to introduce a new law decoupling universities from the state was suspended last year due to protests – but the matter may return to parliament in the spring.

Among the critics was Professor Sverker Sörlin at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology who told University World News: “Autonomy is a good thing and it is advocated by universities across Europe.

“But the Swedish government has unduly favoured only the commercial and innovation-oriented dimensions of university freedom. The broader mission and virtue of universities in society is severely under-articulated.”

A reform of such magnitude also requires autonomous funding, Sörlin argued. “It is unthinkable, or at least uninteresting, for universities to decouple from the state if they are not guaranteed endowments.

“This is also an opportunity to change competitive funding systems through research agencies so that they sustain long-term autonomy.”

Professor Astrid Söderbergh Widding, vice-chancellor of Stockholm University, told University World News: “At Stockholm University, the question of our dimensioning of higher education, related both to demands from students and to societal needs, is by far the most important and most difficult question for 2014”.

Denmark: Reform demands

Denmark has the greatest political ambition for higher education among the Nordic countries. Its goals are for 95% of the youth cohort to complete secondary school, 60% to complete post-secondary education, and 25% to complete a masters degree within the next decade.

The country has the most generous student financing system among the Nordic countries – and indeed in the world – with the highest proportion given as a grant, and special support for students who go abroad.

Still, out of 50,000 Nordic students abroad in 2011, only 7% were from Denmark, which was one of the main reasons why the government launched an action plan for internationalisation.

Minister for Science, Innovation and Higher Education Morten Østergaard is pushing strongly for a large number of reforms and has announced that a new strategy will soon be published, with incentives for international students to remain in Denmark after graduating and other means of attracting international talent.

Recently, the government’s Productivity Commission called for extensive university reforms in order to sharpen the quality of graduates and encourage them to choose more workplace-relevant higher education, and for a state budgetary allocation aimed at better aligning higher education with the needs of industry and society.

Finland: Diversifying income

In Finland, Minister of Education and Science Krista Kiuru of the Social Democratic Party is searching for ways to encourage universities to diversify income streams.

One method since 2010 has been to match university-generated income with 2.5 times more government funding, in conjunction with autonomy reforms.

Former rector Thomas Wilhelmson said in an interview with Stockholm University News that the institution was working more strategically than before. Of its total budget of €700 million (US$957 million), 57% came from government.

Member of Parliament Arto Satonen, who last year presented a proposal in parliament to introduce tuition fees for students from outside Europe, told University World News: “At the moment it seems that there is not going to be any progress with the tuition fee bill.”

Norway: Higher funding, foreign student fees

For a long time while in opposition, Norway’s Conservative-led government advocated higher education and research as a top priority should it come to power.

After five weeks in office, the government managed to strengthen the university sector in the 2014 budget and there is optimism that this is the beginning of a new push to channel more of the funding surplus from oil to research.

Norwegian Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen has announced that higher education and research are budget winners in the new government.

But he is also in favour of introducing tuition fees for international students from outside Europe, arguing that today's system is not hitting the “right target groups” of international students.

The minority government is therefore continuing the process towards tuition fees from students from outside Europe – even though the parliament majority during the budget discussions for next year did not endorse this proposal.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, told University World News: “What I see as the greatest challenge ahead is to nurture even more centres of excellent research at Nordic universities and secure the necessary financial and organisational flexibility needed to connect these research milieus to excellent teaching.

“To do this requires greater strategic action space at universities so that we can become more attractive and have greater muscle in attracting talented researchers and students from abroad. At the core of this are new scientific infrastructure and new buildings,” said Ottersen.

Nordic universities were far away from European research core areas – the ‘Blue Banana’ – and language areas. “We have to compensate for this by being even more attractive through scientific excellence and state-of-the-art infrastructure.

“Universities have to be strengthened as strategic actors. This [depends] upon leadership at universities and better alignment with resource allocation preconditions.”

As chair of the Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions, Ottersen said he wanted to stress that “we stand united against the introduction of tuition fees for students from outside Europe. Norway needs international students more than they need us.”