Universities and colleges face wholesale reforms

The Norwegian government has begun the biggest series of higher education reforms since 1994, when 98 higher education institutions were merged into 26 university colleges.

Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen said he expected significantly fewer universities and university colleges would result from the reforms than the 33 Norwegian institutions today.

“The time is now ripe for this reform,” Isaksen said. “I have not met with one single person who has expressed any regrets about the 1994 mergers.”

Under the changes, 14 universities and university colleges are to be merged into five new universities or university colleges. The largest of the new institutions will be the Norwegian University of Technology in Trondheim.

A national commission of experts delivered a report on reforming the higher education system in 2008, but this was shelved. The plans were taken up again by the new Conservative-Progress Party government after it won the 2013 election, following eight years of a “red-green” coalition government.

White paper

The present government released a white paper setting out the new reforms. It appears to have based its structural change on similar reforms in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where the focus was on turning university colleges into universities, often through mergers.

A major aspect of the Norwegian reforms is extending teacher training to a five-year masters programme. This will require greater collaboration between the universities and university colleges.

Isaksen used the terms “robustness” and “less fragmentation” several times during his presentation of the reforms. He said Norway had too many smaller higher education institutions with little demand for all their programmes. Some had problems attracting highly qualified staff and consequently produced little research and too few graduate students.

”In particular, the ability to compete for and attract external funding for research is very limited. Hence, the pre-conditions for active participation in international research network cooperation are not present,” he said.

There was also a need for changes to generate education and research of high quality, with more robust research groups in which several should be world-leading, Isaksen said. This would provide a more effective use of available resources and thereby contribute to regional development, with better higher education and research competence across the country.

Although the universities of Oslo and Bergen will not be involved in any mergers for the present, they are included in discussions regarding 22 other institutions, both private and public colleges, where mergers and other collaborative options will be discussed.

The earlier programme for transforming university colleges into universities stopped when the present government took office in 2013. Although this scheme will now proceed, the criteria for achieving university status has been tightened and new universities will require their doctoral programmes to have at least 15 doctoral students each, and over time graduate at least 15 candidates each year.

Academic recognition of masters and doctoral courses will be transferred to a national quality assurance body called NOKUT. This will act under more direct control of the ministry.

Similarly, the head of the universities’ governing boards will be appointed by the ministry and selected from outside each university. At present, a university rector is chair of the board and he or she can be elected by the university staff – although this gives academic staff greater influence over the election than administrative and technical staff, or the student vote.

Norway will now follow the other Nordic countries where the education ministries have long appointed the head of the university boards. From now on, Norwegian rectors will be appointed by the board.

Financial consequences

The consequences of the reforms on institutional budgets will not be known until the government’s budget for 2016 is presented in October. University and college allocations are composed of a basic component of 70% and an incentive provision of 30%.

The basic component is historically subject to several parameters and the incentive is based on four: the number of research contracts awarded from the Research Council of Norway, the number of doctoral candidates graduating; the number of publications produced by academic staff; and the research income from the European research programmes, where the latter is matched by the same amount as the institution is receiving.

Two expert commissions have been analysing this financial system, the Productivity Commission and a university financing commission. Both have proposed revisions that will be considered by the government when preparing its 2016 budget.

Rector of the University of Bergen, Dag Rune Olsen, said the point of the reforms was to improve quality: “Mergers will in some cases be rational, but these cannot be a goal in itself. A merger is one of several instruments that can be used and not the only one. For the University of Bergen and the other higher education institutions here, this means a great degree of autonomy for the way ahead.”