HE has a role in stemming rural depopulation, deprivation

The concentration of universities in cities is contributing to depopulation and deprivation of rural areas in Norway and government should respond by legislating to decentralise higher education provision, according to a government report.

Universities and university colleges should be required by legislation to develop education opportunities in the rural districts for people living there, rather than encouraging people to move to the cities to study. The hope is that this would both encourage more people to stay and work in these areas and encourage more people from urban areas to study and build their lives in rural areas.

The proposal is controversial in the light of the current ongoing process of developing larger higher education institutions under the government’s structural reforms initiated in 2015, which has resulted in several university mergers.

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The report, published in December in Norwegian by the Demographic Committee, analyses the likely consequences of demographic challenges facing rural districts over the next three decades.

The committee, which was set up by a Royal decree in October 2019, has called for new thinking about the role of the rural districts in Norway and a new set of instruments to be applied to stem the ongoing process towards a growing elderly population and increasing difficulties faced by the authorities to supply the same level of welfare for the people as provided in urban areas.

According to the report, key issues fuelling deprivation in rural districts are:

• The sector for work is too small to allow for flexibility in people’s selection of work options.

• The housing market is too risky. If you buy a house in many rural districts today you will experience the same value deprivation as with buying a car that is easily depreciated by 30% in the first year, while in the urban areas housing investments are much more profitable.

• The roads are too narrow and in bad condition, while at the same time the people have much longer distances to travel for jobs, school and kindergarten.

• Welfare services like hospitals, schools, kindergartens and others become too expensive for the limited number of people living there.

Professor emeritus of the Norwegian School of Economics, Victor Norman, who is also a former minister of labour and government administration (2001-04), said at the launch of the report that the analysis of the demographic patterns comes to the depressing conclusion that the population in the rural districts of Norway will soon consist of elderly people growing older, unless action is taken now.

“The districts will consist of a population that is dying out, while the urban centres will attract the younger people and we will then no longer have a Norway the way we know it,” Norman said.

Urgent need for action

Norman said that he was shocked by the results of the analysis and warned that it is important to get the message across that action must be taken before it is too late.

Norway has a relatively high proportion of its population living in the rural districts – 950, 000 people out of 5.3 million. This can be compared with Sweden, where 1.3 million of the 10.3 million inhabitants live outside the urban centres.

The committee proposes various means to redress the imbalances between the rural districts and the urban areas in Norway, notably with regard to welfare provisions that are eroding when there are too few people in the workforce providing these services in the districts, but also by rebalancing higher education provision.

Higher education part of the solution

“Higher education is one of the greatest threats for the rural districts, but it also can provide one of the solutions,” Norman said at the launch.

“We have to make it possible for those who want to take higher education in the districts to do so. The potential to secure people with higher education in the districts is possibly greater if funds are invested in educating those who already are living there, instead of trying to attract highly educated people living elsewhere.

“It is therefore important to have a decentralised and flexible supply of higher education available for those already living there.”

Take the nursing occupation, for instance. When trained in a rural district, there is a much higher probability that the nurse will settle in a rural district upon graduation; and the same for teachers, the report said.

“At the same time, it is important to continue to have higher education institutions in the rural districts so that those who are growing up in central areas also have a possibility to study there [in rural areas],” the report says.

Strong factor in internal migration

The report identifies education as the strongest factor in the trend of internal migration causing increasing concentration of the population in urban centres.

“Of men and women born between 1970 and 1974, 39% and 48% respectively had undertaken higher education by the end of their 30s? At that time 60% of the women and 52% of the men who had moved from less central places had completed higher education. Of those living in less central communes, 25% of the men and 39% of the women had undertaken higher education.”

“How are we going to make the rural districts more attractive for people who have an urban background,” Norman asked. “The different parts of rural Norway have to develop a profile that is not a bad copy of the urban centres of Oslo and Bergen; they have to be different and work on their strengths,” he said.

One driver of young people leaving the rural districts has been that women have started to move to the urban centres to take up higher education and then not moved back. “Women do not want to be locked in [the rural districts] with a fixed job, partner and house [that cannot be sold], as they will be today if they move or stay in the countryside,” Norman said. “If we wait 20 years, we will not have a Norway the way we know it,” he said.

Higher education under pressure

University World News asked Professor Emeritus Ivar Bleiklie, an expert on higher education, to comment on the relevance of ongoing structural reforms in higher education.

He said higher education systems are becoming more closely integrated in society and are expected to “fulfil a growing number of objectives, reach higher quality in research and teaching, offer higher education of high quality in each region, educate well-qualified candidates, and provide research services and cooperate with the local businesses”.

“All of this is not easy to obtain at the same time and until now it is quality that has prevailed, with standardising, centralisation and academic drive as the main patterns.”

He said these proposals can be understood as a reaction to the move towards increased centralisation, which the structural reform in Norway, launched in 2015, promoted.

“We now have proposals that go in the direction of more decentralised higher education. That demonstrates that higher education is under pressure from several angles at the same time, as the sector has become more important and is more in the focus than before in politics and the media.”

He said one outcome may therefore be that “we can expect more conflicts and less stability in higher education than before with higher education being drawn into party politics and becoming more exposed to changes when governments are changing”.

“The only thing that can prevent this and secure more stability around the future development of higher education is that the political parties and the interest organisations manage to work out broad compromises,” he said.

Bleiklie questioned whether legislation to establish new higher education opportunities in the rural districts was the best instrument to reach an “otherwise worthy” objective. He said he would have looked more closely at how the merged higher education institutions with several campuses could be decentralised to adapt supply of education and research services to the regional businesses’ needs.

On 27 January 2021 University World News, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, will be bringing together experts and practitioners from across the world from the International Association of Universities, the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities and the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program in an online webinar to discuss: How can universities improve their social impact? You can register to participate here.