Uproar over Nord University closing down three campuses

A decision by the board of Nord University to close three campuses, made on 26 June despite opposition expressed during the comment process, has sparked controversy in Norway and led to accusations of regional neglect by the government.

Student representative Mathias Lauritzen was the only one out of 12 at the board meeting to vote against closing down the campuses of Nesna, Sandnessjøen and Verdal.

Out of nearly 300 comments received in response to the closures proposal, sent out at the end of April, only nine were reportedly positive. Further, a 12,000-signature petition by a Helgeland action group protesting the decision had been delivered to Nord University.

Vigdis Moe Skarstein, chair of the university's board, said that this was the most difficult case ever dealt with by the university board – and might also be the most demanding decision ever faced by a Norwegian university.

Nord University, which has 12,000 students and 1,200 staff, was established in 2016 out of a merger between the University of Nordland, Nesna University College and Nord-Trøndelag University College. This was part of national reforms that saw several institutions merge in order to achieve university status.

The university is located in Bodø with campuses in Stokmarknes, Mo i Rana, Nesna and Sandnessjøen in Nordland, and Levanger, Steinkjer, Namsos and Stjørdal and Verdal in Trøndelag.

Norway's Minister for Research and Higher Education Iselin Nybø, one of the stakeholders who sent in a comment, said she would respect the decision taken by the board. She is an MP for the Liberal Party, a member of a coalition government led by the Conservative and Progress parties.

The political opposition is, unsurprisingly, against the decision. The head of the Socialist Left Party attended the open meeting of the board with the leader of the Centre Party, which is also in opposition. They have authored a proposal to redress the decision in parliament in autumn, since parliament is currently in summer recess.

Rector speaks out

The week before the board meeting, Nord’s Acting Rector Hanne Solheim Hansen commented on restructuring recommendations put forward by the board. “This restructuring is about growth,” she said in a press release, adding that the recommendations were based on a report submitted to the board in April, as well as analyses and consultative statements.

“Nord University's locations of study shall be present in all regions within our primary area,” she stressed. “This is about finding the best long-term solution for Nord University. We need more research, we need to have higher and equal quality in education – and we need to re-allocate resources from infrastructure to academic development.”

Solheim Hansen said that by gathering together several of its academic communities, Nord University could consolidate PhD programmes and profile areas and boost research activities while still providing good access to education in all regions.

During the consultation period, there were 263 consultative statements, which had been “well received and carefully assessed. However, it had not been possible to take everybody into consideration.

The recommendation affects around 120 out of a total of 1,300 employees, the rector said. The university still requires the skills of these employees, and would do all it could to provide offers to those affected. The restructuring period will take up to three years to implement.

Centralisation maelstrom

Nordlys, the major newspaper of the northern town of Tromsø, wrote in an editorial: “It is obvious that the closures of Nesna and the other campuses now is done in a desperate effort to maintain Nord University’s status as a university.”

The government was neglecting its responsibility when Minister Nybø stood by as higher education campuses in Helgeland – a major district of Nordland county in northern Norway – were “slaughtered”.

“This reinforces the impression of a government that has turned its back against the districts and further confirms the maelstrom of centralisation measures now sweeping the country.”

Professor Sigurd Allern, a media theorist at the University of Oslo, wrote in a commentary in Nordlys that if the majority in parliament does not interfere to stop the closures when the case comes up in autumn – which is unlikely since the government has a majority vote in parliament – “this fight should be kept warm until the next election”.

He thinks that the closure of campuses at Nord University is one of many centralisation policies effected by the present government, which has been in charge for the last eight years, and that voters will punish this at the next election.

The Northern region, having been a stronghold for the Labour Party, is now polling for the agrarian Centre Party, which is strongly against centralisation.

University cemetery

“Letting university boards decide upon regional higher education policies is an abdication of its regional education policies. This is undermining respect both for universities and democracy,” Allern argued.

Helgeland – an area rich in business and enterprises, stretching from north of Trøndelag to Salten over an area equal to half of Norway, with a population of 85,000 – was being robbed of higher education institutions.

“Nord University has not bothered to calculate the societal consequences of the closures,” Allern continued. "The only analysis had been a general report on national and regional needs for competence, produced by the international company PwC and based on secondary data.

“In addition, the university leaders have published some primitive calculations that universities will save some tens of millions of kroner through this liquidation and hence become more ‘robust’. No one has calculated the costs for the state and the communities that will be incurred when Nord University sends the newly-razed university buildings to a ‘university cemetery’,” Allern wrote.

Planned closures?

Commenting in the press, several stakeholders accused the government of knowing there would be campus closures when initiating the restructuring and merging of universities in 2015.

Several commentators said they deeply regretted playing along with merger reforms then. The mayor of Nesna, Hanne Davidsen, said the community would like to have back the NOK30 million (US$3.5 million) transferred to Nord University when the merger took place.

The debate in the university press, the researchers’ magazine Forskerforum and social media has been intense. The action group against closing the Nesna campus attracted 22,000 followers on Facebook over three months.

Among the strange facts reported by Forskerforum, an unintended consequence of the mergers of nine campuses of Nord University, spread out over a distance of 900 kilometres along the coast of Nordland, was that during 2018 staff made 3,800 flights in order to discuss collaboration and teaching at each other’s campuses.

Such travel demands huge investment and eats up valuable staff time, which was not taken properly into consideration when working towards the mergers, which were needed in order for Nord University to obtain a university status from 1 January 2016.

Stakeholders at several other Norwegian universities that merged in order to achieve university status have commented that the effect of closures at Nord University might spread to other institutions.