Will Nordic model of higher education survive reforms?

The Nordic region is awash with higher education reform plans at the moment, which may bring challenges for its characteristically well-funded model of higher education and research.

The region – comprising Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Norway and Finland – is home to 27 million people, 1.3 million students, 59 universities and 129 other higher education institutions.

Three of the five countries have comparatively high spending on research and development (R&D). Denmark, Finland and Sweden spend more than 3% of gross national product on R&D compared with the EU-28 average of 2%. Norway lags behind on 1.8% and Iceland’s figure dropped from 2.9% in 2006 to 1.9% in 2014, according to figures from the OECD.

The spending by the state per tertiary education student tells a different story with Sweden (US$20,000) almost matched by Norway (US$19,500), followed by Denmark (US$16,000) and Finland (US$15,000) but Iceland lagging way behind at US$10,000.

The financial support per student has been consistently high at approximately €1,200 (US$1,480) per month (2012 figures) in all countries except for Finland where it was €900. However, while in Denmark two-thirds of the support is given as a grant, in Finland the share is 50%, in Norway 34%, and in Sweden 20%. In Iceland 100% is given as a loan.

Across the Nordic region, 25% of the student population is studying at the masters level compared to for instance 18% in the Netherlands and 13% in Ireland, and 59,500 students are registered at the doctorate level – the majority with grants or staff positions – compared to 14,500 in the Netherlands, a country with a population around two-thirds that of the entire Nordic region.

At doctorate level Scandinavian systems are bolstered by a high intake of international students, with 30% to 40% of students recruited from countries outside the region, illustrating the importance of Scandinavia regarding the international mobility of young researchers.

However, the region is in the midst of ongoing reforms focusing on decoupling universities from the state, university mergers, new governance and axing the humanities.

Finland: Funding under pressure

The latest phase of university reform in Finland began when the Universities Act of 2009 came into force. With it, the universities became independent legal entities, extending the autonomy granted by the 1997 Act. Today, after three university mergers, there are now 15 universities in total in Finland.

According to Ian R Dobson, a consultant working with Finnish universities and former research director of Finland’s University of Helsinki, the main pressures universities face concern funding and since much of their funding comes from government sources, including a lot of the research funding described as ‘external funding’ within the sector, the situation is unlikely to change much.

“One can speculate on what might happen in the future, but Finland’s ageing population will put pressure on other welfare expenditure, including education. Standard reactions include pressures to reduce staff, especially staff not involved in teaching and research, to cut down on the number of small programmes universities teach, and regionally rationalise the programmes being taught,” says Dobson.

He said the idea of mergers between proximate institutions might come up again, and a potential result could be the creation of a unitary system of higher education, in contrast with Finland’s binary system.

The missions of universities and polytechnics (now formally known as universities of applied sciences, the rebranded name used by the institutions themselves) are different, but bureaucrats might decide there could be savings in mergers and takeovers in regional cities.

Göran Melin, a higher education and research expert at the Technopolis Group in Stockholm, agrees that Finland needs to find a way to resolve what role polytechnics should have and how their research activities should be funded side by side with those of universities.

“Finland should find a way of not allowing regional policy to play a large role in its research system,” he told University World News. “As it is now, institutions of weak scientific quality are safeguarded for regional reasons.”

He said the past few years' restructuring of the higher education landscape in Norway should serve as a source of inspiration.

Sweden: Reforms threaten autonomy

In Sweden, the present Stefan Löfven government with Helene Hellmark Knutsson as minister of higher education and research has initiated a new state commission led by former rector of the University of Gothenburg, Professor Pam Fredman, to propose a new model for government’s steering and financing of the state universities. The report is expected at the end of this year.

According to Professor Kåre Bremer, former rector of Stockholm University, the goal is not primarily to increase autonomy but to reform the current system with annual letters of instruction and separate budget allocations for education and research.

“This obviously has implications for the degree of autonomy, since much steering is done by earmarking resources,” Bremer told University World News.

However, the annual state budget for higher education and research is high, SEK60 billion (US$7 billion) to SEK70 billion (US$8.3 billion), and it is consequently “unlikely that the Swedish government, irrespective of the parties in power, will grant a much higher degree of autonomy to the Swedish state universities”, Bremer said.

Denmark: More flexibility

In Denmark, the Committee of Experts for Better University Education has published a hefty report making extensive recommendations for modernising Danish higher education, including the creation of more flexible routes to masters degrees, improved teaching quality and better development of competences for the labour market. It has drawn strong criticism from the student unions arguing that student democratic involvement is being faded out.

Norway: Decoupling from the state

In Norway the Ministry in a letter of 6 March to higher education institutions announced that it will appoint members of expert committees to work out proposals for the eventual decoupling of the universities from the state, and at the same time look upon the legislation and regulations governing higher education to see if changes should be proposed and to look into the practice of New Public Management to see if this is functioning optimally.

Iceland: Straining under expansion

The key changes in Iceland include the 2008 merger when the University of Iceland and the Iceland University of Education merged under the name University of Iceland. For about eight years the four public institutions in Iceland have run a network of public universities, chaired by the University of Iceland.

Iceland’s public and non-public universities are both funded by the taxpayer, but public institutions cannot charge tuition fees. In the public universities the rector is appointed by the minister. The University of Iceland, which is the largest university, does the appointment after an election by staff and students. Since 2008, the rector, who chairs the university council, also appoints deans.

Jón Atli Benediktsson, rector of the University of Iceland, told University World News: “After the economic collapse in 2008, funding was a challenge as the number of students increased 20% and the budget reduced 20%. The budget has been increasing in recent years and the aim is to meet the OECD average by 2020. The challenge is to remain competitive internationally. The University of Iceland is currently in the top 250 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings."

Nordic region: Staffing up for change

Professor Ivar Bleiklie, an education expert at the University of Bergen, Norway, says the unique element in the Scandinavian model for higher education is the massive investment of public funds in higher education with little or no funding from the students. There are no tuition fees at doctorate level in any of the five countries, although only Iceland and Norway do not claim fees for international students from outside Europe.

“The degree of autonomy that is given to each institution is another question,” he said. “In practice this varies within the Nordic countries.”

Questions over whether autonomy covers decisions over financing, budgets, evaluation and quality control, personnel management or the content of research and teaching make comparisons of degrees of autonomy across countries difficult.

“And the increased degree of decision-making authority for the heads of institutions in the Nordic countries comes together with increased monitoring and control from the state through the reporting and funding systems that in fact gives the government increased control,” said Bleiklie.

Professor Jens Oddershede, former rector of the University of Southern Denmark and chairman of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy, believes one of the greatest challenges for universities in general, but maybe in particular for the Nordic universities, is the cross-pressure they are facing.

“On the one hand they seek to be ‘world-class universities’, that is, to score highly on the classical academic values, on the other hand they have to be innovative and create development in the [local] society, new employment, collaboration with business and so on.

“This creates a pressure upon the leadership at the universities and on each individual staff member, and it contributes to a tension between the leadership and the staff members internally at universities.”

In the reform work across the region there has been an extensive up-staffing of the ministries of higher education, producing extensive statistics and setting parameters for universities’ productivity.

Also, the extensive use of expert committees working out detailed recommendations for university reforms and both ministries of finance and parliaments monitoring closely how universities can contribute to economic growth are setting new preconditions for universities’ autonomy.

Bleiklie’s conclusion is that as long as nearly 100% of the public-funded higher education is free, there is not going to be an immediate threat against the Nordic welfare model.

“For a long time there has been talk of ‘decoupling’ the universities from the state, by giving them more responsibilities and governance, but when it comes down to it this is a policy with great ambiguity and many paradoxes,” he said.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, who was rector of the University of Oslo, Norway, from 2009-17, said the main challenge ahead is to retain and even increase the attractiveness of Nordic universities in a world that is becoming ever more interconnected.

“They must be seen as the obvious choices for talented youth, from the Nordic region and beyond,” he said. “For this to happen we have to take into account that the Nordic countries have high costs of living, speak languages that are spoken by few, and are located off the major crossroads in Europe.”

“We can and should counter these disadvantages by holding the quality of our teaching to the highest standard, by resisting the temptation of introducing tuition fees, and by bolstering Nordic collaboration. By joining forces the Nordic countries would emerge as a strong and attractive academic hub, on a par with Germany and the UK.”