Debate over foreign researcher numbers, quota proposal

Summer time in Norway, from June to mid-August, is normally quiet for universities. But not this summer – possibly due to general elections looming in September. Internationalisation has been high on the agenda, with controversy over the growing number of international researchers and a proposal to impose a quota on their numbers.

The debate kicked off on 20 June when Øyvind Østerud, a senior professor of political science at the University of Oslo, asked in an op ed article in the major newspaper Aftenposten why there should be universities in Norway.

“Internationalisation has become the strongest mantra within research and higher education. The objective is that Norwegian universities should become world-leading. This means research mobility across countries, sharpening of investment in research and competence, more international students and staff, stronger competition and more external funding.

“In several academic fields there are almost no Norwegian citizens in recruitment positions. From 2002 to 2012 international scientists accounted for 60% of the total growth in the number of new researchers,” Østerud stated.

“In many academic fields young Norwegian researchers have almost no chance of being recruited, since all positions are announced internationally, and because many international scientists without a position at home have progressed further with their publication record. This means that motivation among Norwegian young researchers is falling.

“Unlimited internationalisation means that it is not rational to have a university in a linguistic and cultural outpost such as Norway. A more thought-through strategy is now needed.”

The article was followed by an interview with Østerud in Klassekampen, Norway’s major left-wing newspaper. “I think that the explosive recruitment of young researchers over the last five years is a surprise also for academic communities themselves,” Østerud said.

Aside from international researchers comprising 60% of the growth in new researchers in the decade to 2012, there had been 10% growth of international PhD candidates from 2010 to 2016.

Since many faculty were recruited in the 1960s and 1970s and were now heading for retirement, the trend towards international recruitment was accelerating.

“Many international researchers are now travelling from country to country as postdoc candidates, some having their fourth or fifth postdoc position. They accumulate long publication lists and hence easily out-compete young Norwegian researchers. In my field we sometimes receive up to 200 applications for a new position,” Østerud said.

He added that it was seriously negligent not to better map out how greater internationalisation could be balanced with the social contracts Norwegian universities have.

Hitting a chord

University of Oslo Rector Ole Petter Ottersen, who left his leadership position after eight years to become rector of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden on 1 August, wrote on his blog-page: “I see to my astonishment that the Centre Party is proposing to limit the number of international staff members recruited to Norwegian universities by affirmative action.

“For a knowledge nation, this is shooting yourself in the foot. Qualifications have to be crucial when filling a scientific position at a Norwegian university, not nationality,” he stated.

It was deeply imbued in the idea of a university that it should harvest from and contribute to the knowledge commons. “The development of new knowledge is a global project,” he argued in a well-documented blog that warned strongly against the ‘re-nationalisation’ of Norwegian universities.

The Director General of the Research Council of Norway, John-Arne Røttingen, told the university magazine Khrono that he was in favour of more internationalisation, but he wanted a better balance between researchers coming into Norway and outgoing Norwegians.

“We will have to look closely at the statistics, and we have to dare to take the debate on this imbalance,” he said.

New figures indicated that Norway received 10 times as many international researchers as there were Norwegians leaving for and after PhD studies.

Political debate

The debate turned political when the major Norwegian publication VG Nyheter ran an interview with Conservative Party Minister of Culture Linda Hofstad Helleland and Centre Party deputy leader Ola Borten Moe – who is in favour of introducing tuition fees for students from outside Europe, as reported by University World News.

The interview was followed by a commentary in the newspaper Dagbladet the next day: “We have to save Norwegian culture from those wanting to defend Norwegian culture.”

The leader of the National Union of Students in Norway, Mats Johansen Beldo, said: “If we keep Norwegian researchers closed in Norway and close our universities for international staff, we are no better than those totalitarian countries we do not like to be compared with.”

Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen said to Klassekampen: “A Berlin wall around Norwegian universities is a worst-case scenario for Norwegian science.

“Quotas for international scientists, as proposed by the Centre Party, is chilling. It is against Norwegian law and also against academic freedom.”