Board vote could trigger historic wave of university mergers

The Board of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, or NTNU, has agreed to a merger with three university colleges creating the largest university in the country, potentially triggering a wave of mergers elsewhere.

The NTNU decision will bring into play further merger initiatives by the other seven Norwegian universities and the other 23 university colleges.

A government white paper on the mergers will be produced in the spring, and the budgetary consequences will be demonstrated in the government budget in October 2015.

This could be the greatest structural reforms in Norway since the 1960s when many of the regionally located university colleges that now are in the frame for mergers were established.

Knife-edge vote

NTNU is to merge with Ålesund, Gjøvik and South-Trøndelag university colleges, creating one university with 38,000 students and 6,500 staff.

In a knife-edge vote on 28 January, the university’s 11 member board split in two, with six voting for and five against a merger. The two representatives of the staff voted against, but the two student members voted in favour of the fusion.

”In a democracy the majority decides,” chair of the NTNU board Svein Richard Brandtzæg said to the press.

Professor Rune Nilsen, head of the board of Telemark University College, which is a candidate for merger with another university college into a “professional university college”, told University World News: “The decision in the board of NTNU shows a shift in Norway with a more strategic leadership culture, together with an openness for multi-campus organisations.”

A stronger national profile?

He said this could create a stronger national profile and position for research, education and innovation in Norway.

“It will be interesting to see how the presently largest university, University of Oslo, will catch this dynamic shift of that paradigm, and how the new larger universities coming out of this reform will join networks and partnerships in the future,” he said.

But Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, the rector of the University of Oslo, said more evidence was needed of the benefits of mergers.

"The new analysis from Denmark does not present a strong argument in favour of a comprehensive restructuring process at home, especially when it comes to cost-effectiveness," he said. "These are very resource-demanding processes that may take attention of other important issues, such as EU-research prioritisation and quality building programmes in teaching and research."

NTNU is the major higher education institution educating civil engineers through a five-year masters programme. With the merger it will also become a significant contributor to a three-year bachelor engineering degree education in Norway.

Encouraged by the award of the Nobel Prize in medicine for 2014 to NTNU professors Edvard and May-Britt Moser, NTNU Rector Gunnar Bovim has worked hard to comply with the government’s top priority for Norwegian higher education institutions over the past couple of years, the drive towards mergers to create improved economies of scale and more world-class research at Norwegian institutions.

Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen stated at a contact conference early in 2014: “We distribute resources too thin between the higher education institutions, and we have too many small and vulnerable research environments offering the same education.

"This leads to many smaller institutions making their strategies to compete with each other instead of collaborating.”

“We need greater differentiation of work tasks between higher education institutions and [to] concentrate the resources in order to create research groups that can be world leaders in their fields,” he said.

He therefore launched the SAKS project (meaning scissors in Norwegian), with the keywords cooperation, sharing of work and concentration to be supplemented by mergers of institutions.

Addressing negative reactions

Isaksen has, together with junior minister Bjørn Haugstad, visited higher education institutions and participated in numerous conferences, addressing the many negative reactions these merger talks have caused.

In particular, negative reactions to the mergers have been frequent and intense in small university colleges up north and in isolated areas where the regional role of these institutions is held in high esteem by local politicians.

Also, the larger universities of Oslo and Bergen have been reluctant to initiate merger discussions with other institutions, opting instead for different forms of local collaboration.

The Ministry formulated a set of questions on the need for mergers, such as: “What consequences do the ongoing demographic changes have for your institution?”, “Should all higher education institutions that today offer teacher training be able to offer a masters degree in all central subjects taught in elementary school?”, “Should all institutions have a position that makes them able to succeed in national and international competition arenas?” and “Should smaller masters degree offers be concentrated at a few colleges to secure a certain size of the study environment?”

Last May the Ministry sent a letter to all higher education institutions with a clear message that they had to come up with proposals on how they would relate to the ongoing mergers and concrete questions. It said the feedback would be used in a government white paper to be published by March 2015. The deadline for responding was set at 1 February 2015.

The letter set in motion extensive discussions across the country, and numerous meetings and conferences have been arranged to further qualify the preconditions for these mergers.

During these meetings it has been clarified by the Ministry that if the institutions themselves cannot come to any agreement on mergers with other institutions, the ministry will instruct such mergers to take place.

Head of the Norwegian Association of Researchers, Petter Aaslestad said: “I have not heard the minister mentioning the problematic and complex sides of such mergers. We [want] to improve quality. But lately, the focus on quality has been overshadowed by the importance of size,” he said to Forskerforum.

Former education minister Professor Gudmund Hernes said it was incorrrect to describe the drive towards mergers as more significant than the structural changes that took place in the 1990s, when "we went from more than 100 institutions to 36". Those changes involved institutions selecting specialities and students being able to combine education from several institutions.

"This is very much the same – it's old wine in a new bottle," he said.