Row over bid to link HE funding to employment outcomes

The Labour Party’s representative on Norway’s parliamentary higher education committee has defended an agreement reached by three opposition parties to demand that the government develop a new funding arrangement for universities and colleges that rewards institutions according to the number of students getting work after graduation, in the face of strong opposition from some university leaders.

The proposal is strongly opposed by the Conservative minister of research and higher education, Henrik Asheim. But it has a strong chance of being passed because the three parties have 95 representatives between them compared with the present minority government coalition of the Conservative Party, Christian Democratic Party and Liberal Party, with 61 representatives in total.

The proposal has been made by an unusual alliance of the Labour Party, the right-wing Progress Party and the Centre Party and follows repeated pressure from the Progress Party, which has long wanted to change the funding model to make it more rewarding for universities to educate graduates where there is a strong demand in the labour force, such as in engineering, technology and teacher training, and reduce the capacity in studies where there is less demand in the labour force.

Nina Sandberg, the lead representative of the Labour Party in parliament’s higher education committee, told University World News: “It is a part of the social mission of universities and university colleges to secure a highly qualified workforce for society. The Labour Party thinks that relevance to work and lifelong learning should be some of the several national goals for higher education.”

She said the three opposition parties have agreed six specific proposals related to the governmental competence white paper. “The Labour Party has over several years been working for a competence reform and with these proposals we are a step further towards a reform of lifelong learning.”

The libertarian right-wing Progress Party (PP) has repeatedly argued for funding for universities to be linked to incentives related to the number of students getting work after graduation.

In 2018 Åshild Bruun-Gundersen, PP’s representative on parliament’s higher education committee in parliament, said: “The paradox today is that it is rewarding for universities to establish study places within the humanities [and arts] subjects that are popular with students and have a high likelihood of them fulfilling their studies on time, while there are less incentives to educate people for work.”

She referred to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics indicating that Norway in 2035 might have over 50,000 more graduates educated in the humanities and arts subjects than there is a demand for in the workforce

The chair of the parliamentary committee, Roy Steffensen (PP), told the major Norwegian newspaper VG on 20 May that the PP had expected an invitation from the governing Conservative Party – with which the PP had been working in the coalition government until January 2020 – when the PP decided to leave the government.

So when this invitation was not forthcoming, they sat down with the two other parties after the case was presented by the government in parliament on 22 April.

“I am the only person not having completed higher education in the committee”, Steffensen said, “but still I can count to 85, the number that will give a majority in parliament,” he said, referring to the final decision in parliament this June.

“The [underlying] thread in this agreement is that we have found a way to adapt better to the needs in the workforce, where we now are in agreement,” Steffensen said.

Until the VG interview, universities were not aware of the three-party agreement. It triggered an angry response from rectors, politicians and university staff, demanding to know how the three parties would find out which higher education fields are in demand in the workforce.

The rector of the University of Oslo, Svein Stølen, told Khrono the move was “shocking”. He said: “Today we have a financing model with eight parameters. This is very simple. If we start changing this, we open up for a totally different system without having taken the risks into consideration.”

The rector of the University of Bergen, Dag Rune Olsen, and the vice-rector for education, Oddrun Samdal, said: “To reward universities and university colleges [based on] how many students are getting a relevant job is probably well meant. But it might also be founded on a limited and instrumental view of knowledge.”

The newspaper Aftenposten warned in an editorial on 23 May that “it is not easy to know when you need a humanist”.

However, in an article in Khrono on 25 May four rectors – Petter Aasen, rector at the University of South-Eastern Norway; Berit Rokne, rector of Western Norway University of Applied Sciences; Kathrine Skretting, rector of the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences; and Curt Rice, rector of Oslo Metropolitan University – said: “With 280,000 students, where 260,000 are funded from the governmental budget, it is not reasonable to see the interest of the authorities in working life relevance as unreasonable.”

They said the key issue was the need for a thorough reworking of the funding system for higher education.

Sandberg defended the proposal agreed between the three opposition parties, saying the parties were asking for a proposal for a new financing system to be worked out in close collaboration with the sector and the labour unions and there would be many opportunities for further analysis and discussion.

However, she stressed that the financing system is an overarching tool for the national authorities to ensure that common resources are promoting national priorities.

She said the financing system today constitutes a “barrier towards obtaining good continuing education”.

The Labour Party thinks it might pay off for a university and a university college to “engage in continuing education and to have a glance at how the graduates are performing when entering the labour force”.

“Several countries have working-life relevance as one of the factors in their financing system, like Finland and Denmark. I am not surprised that potential changes in the financing system are creating debate. What surprises me, however, is the lack of nuances in the debate.

“We will of course argue that Norway is in need of both philosophers and engineers. Nevertheless working-life relevance is as important in the discipline subjects as in the professional fields. The financing system of today does not contribute to the needed diversity, neither in the supply of higher education nor for the workforce, and we look forward to a change.”