Rectors seek end to interference in university autonomy

Thirty-two rectors of Norwegian universities and university colleges have written an open letter to Minister of Research and Higher Education Iselin Nybø criticising interference by the ministry in the restructuring process at Nord University, urging the government to leave the university to decide what is the best for the students, the region and the institutions.

The letter is one of many interventions in the heated ongoing debate over the consequences of the 2015 mergers of Norwegian higher education institutions that is now leading to closure of campuses and study places, as reported by University World News.

The letter says: “Nord University is in the middle of a demanding restructuring process. Rectors of Norwegian universities and university colleges therefore are asking for respect for this task and that the board is left with the responsibility to manage this process as the highest authoritative body of their institution.”

The rectors said Norwegian universities and university colleges are institutions with extended authorisation and institutional autonomy and the latter is decisive for universities and university colleges to be able to fulfil their mission towards society.

Minister sending letter to the board

The background for this intervention is a letter the minister wrote to Nord University in April in light of the closure process set in motion by a note of the rector of Nord University to the board proposing to reduce activities on some campuses and close down two of the university’s campuses.

In the letter the minister addressed concerns over the lack of nurses in the county of Nordland. She said: “I assume that the board in particular will take into consideration the needs of the hospitals [in the region] and how their need is to be met.”

The editor of the researchers’ magazine Forskerforum characterises this as an “indirect instruction”.

Strong opposition

The discussions of the closures and reduced activities at the campuses by the board in April set in motion a number of protest actions along the coast in the areas affected in the county of Nordland and beyond.

Some 6,000 people gathered at a protest concert in the town of Namsos, and there were public meetings, debate articles in the local and national press, several interventions in parliament and the establishment of a ‘people’s protest action group for higher education at the coast of Helgeland’, which in a short time garnered 22,000 followers on Facebook.

Forskerforum sent a team of journalists up north to provide a nine-page report on the closure of Nesna campus in its June edition, with pictures of the locals parading posters such as “Stop the murdering of Nesna!” in front of Prime Minister Erna Solberg when she visited the region in April.

“Many will not be able to relocate. We will be sacrificed as a society. This is a be or not to be for Nesna,” Mayor Hanne Davidsen said. Students said they would not have gone to university if Nesna campus did not exist.

Local representative of the researchers’ union Morten Mediå said: “With a light heart they [the board of Nord University] are renouncing a hundred years of history. The teacher training at Nesna cannot be valued highly enough.”

Protests outside parliament

More than one hundred people protested in front of parliament on 11 June under the banner: “Let Nesna live!” Women dressed up in the national costume bunad – a farmers’ costume symbolising national freedom – were joined by the leaders of three of the opposition parties in parliament in a protest organised by the ‘people’s protest action group for higher education at the coast of Helgeland’.

Catrine Hole said in an appeal on behalf of the organising group: “The greatest lie of all is that research and international recognition are more important than the people in this country and that [Nord University] has to meet these criteria as a university. This is affecting the whole region. For us this is absurd.”

The board at Nord University is due to decide on this case on 26 June 2019.