An action plan to address the crisis facing humanities

When Education and Research Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen addressed a symposium at the University of Oslo recently, expectations were high. He was presenting the main conclusions in a government white paper outlining an action plan to address critical issues confronting the humanities at Norwegian universities.

Would he give rectors some guidance for higher education institutions? Would he channel funds into the humanities?

The rectors of the universities of Oslo and Bergen had said they were prepared to roll up their sleeves and give the humanities a special push in the years ahead.

Professor Ragnhild Hennum, pro-rector of the University of Oslo, joked when introducing the minister that she had hoped to see him carry a large money bag with him to the meeting but could only see a small file.

Early in his presentation, Minister Røe Isaksen said he did not bring news of large sums of additional funds, but that the government would make adaptations to the present research allocation system, in particular with regard to funding through the Research Council of Norway, when announcing their large research programmes.

The conditions of participation would be changed so that researchers in the humanities could apply as principal investigators and not only as collaborators to other sciences, he said. He also said that in its recommendations to assist in the planning of the next European Union research programme, which will run from 2021, Norway would argue in particular for a strengthened role for the humanities.

Røe Isaksen said that the white paper, which will be presented to parliament in the Spring, argues for further development of the humanities under three broad themes: integration and migration; technological shifts, and environment and climate.

The main messages in the white paper were:
  • • Mobilisation of more researchers in the humanities as a main knowledge producer and not as a ‘helper’ to other sciences;

  • • National cooperation within the smaller or minor languages, sharing the responsibilities between the universities.
Røe Isaksen said that the ministry will re-introduce a four-year bachelor degree for certain minority languages in Norway like Arabic and Japanese, eventually also in collaboration with the Nordic Council of Ministers, which Norway currently chairs.

The minister said that the humanities had to work for a greater recognition of their value outside the public sector to change the current trend in which the majority of graduates are getting work within the public sector.

Drawing up this white paper has taken 18 months and has included consideration of comments and proposals from 70 institutions and individuals.


The initiative has been met with a lot of positive reactions, but also some warnings. The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise or NHO, said in their commentary: “It is a dangerous for such a white paper to become only a long celebration talk on the importance of the humanities for people and the nation.”

NHO called for more expertise to be developed in digitisation and more knowledge of languages in addition to English. The humanities themselves have to address how they can become more attractive for industry, NHO said, citing a 2016 survey, to which 5,183 NHO members responded, of whom only 5% said that they would need competence in the humanities over the next five years.

By contrast, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, described the humanities as “the backbone of the Europe of tomorrow”.

Writing on his blog, he said: “In the turbulent times we are experiencing today in Europe, we are in need of the humanities and the social sciences to build trust and understanding across geographical, cultural and social cleavages. European universities have to be truth-seeking and trust-building.”

Professor Curt Rice, rector of Oslo and Akershus University College, told University World News he was pleased to see the humanities receiving so much attention in the white paper.

“My understanding is that the big push is on increased disciplinarity, bringing the perspectives of the humanities on board not only to support other perspectives but as a free-standing and important source of new knowledge, also about such wide-ranging topics as migration, technology and climate change.”

‘Research lighthouse’

The Young Academy of Norway said in their commentary that Norway ought to take the initiative to develop a “research lighthouse” that can have the “same role for the humanistic sciences as the research centre CERN in Switzerland is having within particle physics”.

Pål Magnus Lykkja, academic librarian at the University of Oslo, told University World News: “The Young Academy of Norway is raising a very important issue, namely the connection between the humanities and technology.”

He said their suggestion of creating a digital humanities centre in Norway was an interesting proposal. “We have seen vital examples of similar major centres being developed by Joseph Henrich on collective intelligence and by his colleague Michael Muthukrishna in a global database on religious history."

One member of the Young Academy of Norway, Associate Professor Alexander Refsum Jensenius from the department of musicology at the University of Oslo, who is one of the principal investigators of the newly selected Centre of Excellence for Interdisciplinary Studies in Rhythm, Time and Motion, elaborated on the ‘research lighthouse/CERN’ proposal to the university magazine Khrono, arguing that Norway could establish a ‘European Cultural Brain Centre’.

“Why not be more ambitious?” Jensenius asked. “We do not think big enough, and our [humanities] projects hence become too small.

“This would place humanistic research and teaching on the agenda, and help Norway to become a world leader attracting the best researchers,” he said.