Minister accused of issuing order to university rector

In the heated debate in Norway’s parliament and in the Norwegian press on the closure of campuses at Nord University, Minister of Research and Higher Education Iselin Nybø has faced strong criticism – notably from the left-wing newspaper Klassekampen (the Class Struggle) and the researchers’ magazine Forskerforum – for instructing the rector of UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Anne Husebekk, not to interfere in the closure process.

The rebuke came after Husebekk had proposed holding discussions with one of the threatened campuses, Nesna, on the coast of Helgeland, that UiT collaborate with Nord University in building up new study programmes there for the continuing professional development of teachers.

Nord University was established in 2016 out of a merger between the University of Nordland, Nesna University College and Nord-Trøndelag University College under national reforms that saw several institutions merge in order to achieve university status.

A decision taken by Nord University’s board in June to close two campuses on the coast in Helgeland, at Nesna and Sandnessjøen – having previously planned to close three campuses – led to accusations of regional neglect by the government.

Nord University was also accused of not considering the ‘societal consequences’ of such closures.

In e-mail correspondence with senior officials in the ministry, Husebekk complained: “It is not all right (and is very intimidating) to have been instructed in front of rectors from eight universities [to keep hands off Nesna campus] and I hope not to have to experience this again.”

She was referring to a meeting on 23 August between the ministry and Norwegian universities.

In a follow-up investigation, Forskerforum reported that “UiT felt pressed [by the ministry] not to participate at a conference at Nesna”.

Responding to this news, the representative of the Socialist Left Party, Mona Fagerås, demanded that Minister Nybø be called before parliament to explain this move. Nybø, defending her action, told Forskerforum: “We [the ministry] asked UiT to take a step back and not add more fuel to the fire.”

She added that it was an exaggeration to link this move to the debate about autonomy of Norwegian universities, where the ministry has announced that a revision of the rules and regulations would be undertaken.

Dag Rune Olsen, rector of the University of Bergen and board chair of Universities Norway (UHR), said in a statement that it is improper to use oral messages in the governance dialogue between the ministry and universities.

“We are owned and governed [by the ministry], but it is also important that such governance should take place through formalised processes, through budgetary letters and formal meetings, in order to have an orderly and predictable process of communication,” he argued.

Minister denies ‘instructing’ UiT

In an open letter in Forskerforum on 23 October, Minister Nybø said that “universities have to have good communication with each other” and that she had not instructed UiT but asked for their constraint in a heated situation.

“I am working on having a running dialogue with our universities and university colleges on how they shall fulfil their responsibilities towards society and I think most institutions appreciate an oral communication and not only a formal steering procedure through the budgetary letters,” she said.

Also on 23 October, Professor Emeritus Sigurd Allern of the University of Oslo, who is a heavyweight in public debates on Norwegian higher education, writing in Forskerforum, said Nybø had lost credibility.

“Iselin Nybø is no supporter of building up higher education in Helgeland; she is a part of the problem,” he said.

He said: “It is evident to everyone that the ‘autonomy’ concept has become a rubber band so elastic that it can be applied in all directions, depending on the tactical and political needs that have to be implemented.

“Minister Nybø’s speciality is, however, political disclaimer and when she meets resistance she glides like an eel from former positions,” Allern said.