Oslo’s global advisors ‘build a ladder to the stars’

Two years ago the University of Oslo appointed a high-profile international strategic advisory board to propose how to increase its global visibility as a leading research-intensive university by 2020. Last week the board delivered its report, Build a Ladder to the Stars.

Among other things the international team, chaired by former Finnish prime minister Esko Aho, proposed more interdisciplinarity, an outward-looking culture and greater autonomy.

Other members included professors Peter Agre and Erwin Neher, Nobel prize laureates; Professor Shaheen Sardar Ali of Warwick University; Professor Toril Moi of Duke University; Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of Columbia University, and rector emeritus of the University of Twente, Professor Frans van Vught.

The team met with many internal stakeholders at the University of Oslo, or UiO, and many external stakeholders, including Norwegian Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen. Aho presented the report to the university’s governing body on 10 September.

Writing university strategies is difficult. It is easy to get carried away by verbosity and good intentions that everybody can identify with, or to get bogged down in detailed descriptions of important tasks while not prioritising among them.

But “Build a Ladder to the Stars” does not fall into these traps. It is short – a mere 17 pages – contextual in its analysis, concrete with regards to recommendations and not afraid to quote inspirational intellectuals.

The document opens with a statement by James Madison: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

One thing is missing, though – a young voice.

The team starts out with a clear message: “While not world leading, UiO is a university of good international standing. Our strategy has been to offer advice on how UiO best can improve the execution of its strategy to meet its goals.”

It offers a 10-dimensional ‘profile analysis’ that helps to identify directions the university must take to achieve its ambitious goals.

The dimensions are: global-regional; comprehensive-focused; curiosity driven-relevance driven, disciplinary-interdisciplinary, competition-cooperation, inward-looking versus outward-looking culture; basic versus applied research; selectivity versus accessibility; dependence versus autonomy; and decentralisation versus centralisation of authority.

This exercise is of interest to any research university wanting to improve its international standing.

In particular, the board suggests a stronger movement towards interdisciplinarity, a more outward-looking culture and greater autonomy. And on the basis of the profile analysis, it gives 38 concrete proposals on general academic focus, education and research, external conditions and governance.

Eight of the 38 items are directed towards facilitating more interdisciplinary initiatives. For example:

“Currently the bulk of student education takes place in relatively isolated disciplinary silos. The rigid structure of study programmes limits interdisciplinarity and restricts mobility. We recommend that the university consider developing a more general introductory first year study programme, maybe modelled on the idea of a ‘liberal arts’ style freshman year.”

Perhaps the most innovative proposal is on governance.

The report states: “The ‘right’ balance [between centralised and decentralised governance] is not a matter of choosing one uniform governance structure to fit all the university’s activities, but of choosing the right governance structure for each specific activity or programme. The university leadership must provide different environments for different purposes.”

On this basis a variety of governance structures is recommended. In addition to contextual recommendations, concrete proposals include:
  • • Build a fundraising scheme.
  • • Develop venture funding.
  • • Diversify external income.
  • • Make it easier to move resources between areas depending on priorities.
  • • Develop better mentoring.
  • • Develop young researchers’ skills for grant applications.
  • • Consider developing tenure track.
  • • Increase international mobility, both for students and staff.
  • • Establish more ambitious forms of international education, including joint programmes and joint degrees.
Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, told University World News:

“One measure that we are taking this advice very seriously is that 2015 has been declared ‘the year of interdisciplinarity’ as the main strategic task for the university.”