Merger battles begin after parliamentary vote

The Council of State has ordered the merging of 11 higher education institutions into four new institutions, thereby establishing the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, or NTNU, as the largest university in Norway.

Some other mergers that were in the planning process were either suspended or prolonged for further discussions.

The decision follows a discussion on 9 June by the parliamentary education committee of a 19-page white paper entitled Concentration for Quality: Structural reforms in the university and university college sector, endorsing the proposed reforms by the government.

At the committee stage, however, a wide variety of arguments were delivered, commenting on the different aspects of the white paper, and requesting a more thorough treatment of the topic, in particular of the quality issue that is the main objective of the reforms.

The overall point of departure in the government proposal for sharper profiles of Norwegian higher education institutions and “more robust” research groups, as a move towards better quality and concentration in the higher education sector, was endorsed by the majority on the committee.

Some members of the committee wanted specific changes in the documents – such as greater concentration of Norwegian higher education institutions as a motor for regional development, a separate research programme for the professional degrees, and a complete system for accreditation and work sharing in the higher education sector – but these were not endorsed by the majority of committee members.

Two of the most controversial issues in the debate before the parliamentary discussions were whether the rector of a higher education institution should be elected by the staff of the institution or selected by the board or the ministry, as the government had proposed, and questions on the financial distributions from the government to the institutions.

Heated debate

The second question on budgetary principles saw a heated debate before the parliamentary meeting, in which the ‘new universities’ which obtained university status after the year 2000 claimed that the so-called ‘basic allocation’ to higher education institutions was favouring the older universities.

The distribution of the government budget to higher education institutions in Norway, some NOK19 billion per year (US$2.4 billion), follows a historical formula based on parameters such as numbers of students and staff, laboratory costs and research infrastructure etc, and is not based on a mathematical, equal distribution between institutions.

The ‘new universities’ argued that the older institutions were privileged in the distribution of funds since there have been no corrections of the budgetary distributions after the new universities obtained their university status.

Several members of parliament sided with this argument, requesting a more detailed examination of the so-called ‘black box’ of the basic component of the budgetary allocations to institutions that today covers 70% of spending.

The committee agreed with this view, requesting the government to come back to the parliament with such a breakdown of comparable statistics either in the government budget in October or at another point in time.

The Norwegian student union, NSO, a federation comprising 44 member student unions with 200,000 members, said in a press release that “the parliament has decided upon the structural report – now the institutions have to follow suit”. It was satisfied that attention was being paid to the quality of teaching and student satisfaction.

Anders Kvernmo Langset, chair of the NSO, said: “We are satisfied with the historical decision taken today. For the students this white paper is important, and NSO has been heard on several important issues, notably on student satisfaction, study quality and the leadership model.”

Ola Magnussen Rydje, an adviser to the NSO and former chair, said parliament’s ruling represented “a silent revolution”.

“These decisions could be a blow to the midriff of ‘expansion inclined’ rectors and senior managers,” he wrote in the major Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.

“The implementation of the reforms could easily become a bloody and brutal fight for resources between the universities and the university colleges. Institutions shall have to merge, thematic groups shall have to be re-organised or removed and the money shall be concentrated. This means trouble.”

But maintaining the status quo is not an option, he argued.

Merger breakdown

One proposed merger broke down recently, between the University of Stavanger, or UiS, and the University College of Haugesund, or HSH.

Professor Bjørn Kvalsvik Nicolaysen, a board member of the University of Stavanger (one of the new universities), who was originally an enthusiastic supporter of the proposed merger, said his institution’s efforts to develop standards to an international level were at odds with HSH’s apparent desire to maintain a “community college” position, rather than “following our lead in quality standards”.

“We must fix our priorities in research and teaching without diverting from our strategies,” he said.

“Our organisational models are partly incompatible, and without a total cooperative merging of the relevant departments in question, we would have been forced to quibble for years whilst creating makeshift institutional structures,” he told University World News.

He also said the costs of integrating HSH while maintaining standards were “just too great”.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, said it is an open question whether mergers in the long term will lead to a strengthening or weakening of the overall Norwegian institutional landscape.

"The crux is that there are many paths to quality. Mergers are one possible way towards this goal – but there are others that might turn out to be as successful in the long run," he said.

"In the case of my own university, the road to quality goes through internationalisation and European Union funding, recruitment and talent development, interdisciplinary research, and additional investments in researcher-initiated projects. Adequate funding of projects initiated by the researchers themselves is a safe way to excellence. The Norwegian government – and the Norwegian Research Council – should take note of this."