Foreign-born academics face recruitment discrimination

Norwegian universities and research institutions are characterised by a kind of 'Norwegianness', which makes it difficult for foreigners to get a position at academic institutions, according to a new report.

The report says foreign-born academics are less likely to be employed in higher education and research compared to the majority population.

The problem is found across all disciplines but is more pronounced in the humanities and liberal arts, education, economics and business administration; and less so in technical, health and legal subjects, according to the report, which was commissioned by the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research – the KIF Committee – which since 2014 has also included ethnic diversity in its mandate.

Approximately half of foreigners who have graduated with a PhD degree in Norway have left Norway or not been employed in Norway. Only 30% or a lower proportion of foreign-born PhD graduates each year were associated with Norwegian higher education and research institutions after graduation, compared to 60% of those with Norwegian citizenship.

“Persons with an immigrant background are underrepresented among professors and overrepresented among researchers and in lower-level teaching positions at universities and university colleges,” the report said.

The informants from the case institutions also stressed what they perceive to be structural discrimination in the recruitment processes in academia. “This discrimination is expressed in specific forms of nepotism, cultural cloning and closed recruitment processes,” the report says.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Bjørn Haugstad, state secretary to the Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, said: "This government has an objective to increase quality in higher education. We therefore have to ensure that recruitment is just and that the best applicant is getting the job. The evolution criteria have to be constantly discussed,” he said.

Haugstad said that in the light of the great social changes in Norway and Europe lately, with the migrant crisis and greater pressure also in Norwegian higher learning institutions, we know frustratingly little about how the competence of migrants can be used.

The same is the case in the other Nordic countries – they have very little information on ethnic minorities, he said.

Commenting on the report, Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, said: "It is crucial for the quality of research that recruitment is undertaken from the greatest possible talent pool so that we also get diversification of perspectives within research.

“It is therefore very harmful if migrants do not get the equal opportunity as others to make an academic career. This issue is also related to the necessity for social mobility.”

Gap in knowledge base

The report, [i[To Be a Foreigner is No Advantage: Career paths and barriers for immigrants in Norwegian higher education and research institutions, was published by the Work Research Institute and Olso and AkershusUniversity College of Applied Sciences earlier this month.

In commissioning the report, the KIF Committee wanted to fill a gap in the knowledge base on the diversity in the career paths for immigrants within Norwegian higher education and research.

The report contains a survey of research literature from the Nordic countries; analysis of a selection of relevant and accessible statistics and qualitative case studies at three Norwegian institutions.

These include SINTEF, which is the largest independent research institute in Scandinavia with research competence in technology, natural sciences and social science research, having 2,100 employees from about 70 countries. Some 90% of the NOK3 billion (US$349 million) budget is from external funding and 53% of staff have a doctoral degree.

HiOA – the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences – is also examined. It has 17,000 students and 1,900 staff members and hosts the National Center for Multicultural Education.

The third case study is the University of Bergen, with 14,800 students and 3,600 staff members. Some 20% of its staff were born outside Norway, the largest such proportion of any higher education institution in the country.

The case studies included individual and group interviews with scientific staff and representatives from management, and analysis of strategic documents on diversity policies.

A decade of changes

Norwegian universities and research institutions have become more ethnically, culturally and linguistically diversified over the past decade, the proportion of foreign staff rising from 14% in 2000 to 22% in 2009, a period in which the overall number of staff has also grown significantly.

The share of foreign nationals is about 20% among associate and full professors, and the percentage of foreigners among PhD candidates is around 35% of those graduating, with particularly strong percentages in technological fields and certain natural sciences.

Earlier research in the Nordic countries established that it is more difficult for foreign-born scholars to gain employment in higher education and research than it is for scholars from the majority population.

It found that foreign-born scholars experience exclusion caused by internal recruitment and unwritten rules and that mastery of other languages besides English is an important ticket into the academic community.

Higher ambitions

Of the findings in the report, the most significant difference between immigrant academics and the majority population is that masters degree holders with an immigrant background are considerably more likely to want to work in research and are more likely to have plans to obtain a PhD degree compared to masters degree holders from the domestic population.

This ambition is independent of the study results and grades they have, and the ambition to want to work in research was significantly higher for immigrants from Asia and Africa.

The reasons for foreigners having poorer access to the work market in academic institutions are thought to be due to poor or non-existent Norwegian language skills – where for instance the language law specifies that a public employee has to master the two official Norwegian written languages bokmål and nynorsk – and a lack of networks and references or a lack of cultural or contextual understanding characterised by some informants as "typically Norwegian".

Potential measures

The report discusses several measures to address the present imbalance, like a shift in the focus from recruitment processes to inclusion processes and awareness-raising campaigns within higher education and research institutions.

Secretary of State Haugstad said at the launch of the report that there is frustratingly little accessible knowledge on how people with high qualifications coming to Norway are treated and that the legitimacy in academic life depends on combatting discrimination.

Ole Petter Ottersen told University World News: “We have to take this report seriously. Several units at the University of Oslo are working on issues related to these challenges, and we are now allocating more study places for refugees in order to make them more qualified for the workforce."

He said social mobility is essential for research and for society at large to develop in the right direction.