Oslo university unveils unprecedented plan for humanities

The University of Oslo has presented an ambitious and unprecedented action plan for the humanities towards 2030 – the first such plan ever – in response to the Norwegian government’s call in 2017 for higher education institutions to strengthen their work with the humanities.

The action plan has also been driven forward by the huge collaborative research project ‘UiO:Nordic’ in which more than 250 scholars, half of them professors – both in the Nordic countries and abroad – have participated.

On 21 January, Svein Stølen, rector of the University of Oslo (UiO), and Frode Helland, dean of the faculty of humanities, presented the strategy in an article in Morgenbladet – the major Norwegian cultural newspaper – entitled “Society needs strong humanities”.

“The strategy shall contribute both to new knowledge and to ring-fencing the democratic values our society is built upon and decide the way forward for the next decade. The University of Oslo is the strongest university of the humanities in Norway and among the European universities awarded most grants from the European Research Council and the centres of excellence awards in the Norwegian Research Council,” they stated.

The objectives are to strengthen the position of the humanities at UiO. UiO shall continue to be the best humanities university nationally, with an ambition to be a leader among the Nordic countries; and underline the contribution of the humanities to solving the grand challenges of our time.

Higher education in the humanities shall provide key competence for future employees. Critical thinking and understanding of context are central in the humanities and a competency very much in demand in the working life, the report said.

There are six main areas in the strategy:

• History, cultural heritage and aesthetics
• Knowledge and education
• Language and cultural competence
• Sustainable development and climate change
• Technology as cultural form and a way of life
• Democratic development.

Twelve professors have been involved in working out the strategy, representing the fields at the humanities faculty and including participation from the faculties of theology, law, social sciences and the Museum of Cultural History.

Large collaborative project

The UiO strategy has been driven forward by a large cross-scientific project in 2015-22 named UiO:Nordic, which aims to gather good research projects in the humanities and the social sciences, medicine and natural sciences, searching for new knowledge about the Nordic region from a comparative perspective.

Other objectives are to contribute to the UiO strategic plan, to bridge to other social actors and to strengthen cross-scientific education, relevance and quality. UiO:Nordic has its centre of gravity in the humanities and social sciences, but UiO:Nordic is not purely a humanities project although the humanities play a central role in many of the cross-scientific projects involved.

As of 1 February 2020, UiO:Nordic had 212 researchers attached to the project, 129 of these from UiO, and involved 27 units at UiO and produced 749 publications. In addition, 35 PhD students have been attached to the project with participants from 11 countries, half of these from the Nordic countries.

The various projects have received NOK100 million (US$411.6 million) in external funding to the research groups, from NordForsk, the Research Council of Norway, the European Union and others.

Professor Tore Rem, director of UiO:Nordic, told University World News: “The strongest elements in this project investment are without doubt the extent of cross-scientific research involved, and the volume. And we have participation of many of the leading scholars in the field. This has to be the largest collective research work on ‘Nordic studies’, widely defined, ever undertaken.”

UiO:Nordic is one of the University of Oslo’s three interdisciplinary research initiatives and got off the ground in 2015. Today it consists of twelve large research projects, involving some 250 researchers in Norway and beyond. In addition to this, UiO:Nordic supports many smaller research initiatives on Nordic issues, as well as outreach.

The mandate is to analyse institutions, practices and cultural expressions within the Nordic countries and to apply both historical and comparative perspectives.

“Our ambition has been to investigate the strengths of the so-called Nordic model, as well as its current challenges,” Rem says.

“One clearly innovative dimension of UiO:Nordic is that we demand the participation of researchers from at least two different faculties in our research projects. This demand for radical interdisciplinarity has encouraged our researchers to think in new ways, both in terms of subject matter and of questions asked.”

To illustrate the range of interests, he mentions:

• ‘Futuring Sustainable Nordic Business Models’, a co-operation between lawyers, designers and information technologists;

• ‘Nordic Welfare Developments’, involving economists, historians and political scientists;

• ‘Living the Nordic Model’, where researchers from media studies, psychology and pedagogics study childhood and adolescence in the welfare state; and

• ‘Nordic Branding’, in which lawyers, historians and social anthropologists consider the creation of the Nordic model and its uses in politics, law and business, at home and abroad.

“The results are being published in top international journals and with leading publishers, but we also strive to draw public attention to key societal concerns, to come up with policy advice and to cooperate both with the civil service and with business.”


As a continuation of the UiO action plan Professor Rem now chairs a working group with the task of developing UiO:Nordic into ‘UiO:Democracy’ (project outline in Norwegian).

The project outline states: “The EU in its new framework programme is recommending not only to initiate research on democracy but [with] a powerful cross-scientific transnational grip to protect, develop and think new about democratic institutions, practices and cultures. The UiO has also designated democracy as one priority research area.”

This is among other things manifested in the work with Circle U, the European University Alliance of which UiO Rector Stølen is the elected president.

UiO:Democracy is a proposal on how UiO can actively contribute to international work as a broadly oriented ‘university for society’.

Sverker Sörlin, professor of environmental history at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, who in 2018 coordinated three European Research Council grants in the humanities, told University World News: “This is the way forward for the humanities and I am very happy with this development at UiO.

“I have followed the careful and long-term development of humanities in Norway and seen the concerted efforts of the Norwegian Research Council, the Ministry of Education and Research, and the humanities research community in Norway, and noticed the commitment in several universities.

“Funding opportunities for the humanities will surely also increase as the reform of the Research Council of Norway continues.”

He said: “Remembering the infected and soul-searching crisis debates a decade ago and the humanities on the defence [that] we saw then, this signals a willingness to progress that will be good for humanities at UiO but also for Norway as a society.”

He believes the broad, thematic collaborations will release new energy and make it possible to bring humanities into direct contact with the largest knowledge questions asked in our time.

“But it also speaks to societal needs and to engagement in social values and the need to always care for the Earth as a place where we can live together. Without the humanities, that would not be possible.”

He said it should be an interesting challenge to develop new advanced teaching programmes based on the integrative developments. “Low fruit are hanging all over the place.”

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, former rector of the University of Oslo from 2009-17, who has been rector at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm since 2017, told University World News: “I am extremely happy to learn about this new initiative and see it as a timely follow-up of the interdisciplinary research initiative launched during my stint as UiO president.

“‘Big science’ and large collaborative networks have too long been a signature of the natural sciences – now we see the value of large and multidisciplinary networks also in the realm of the humanities.

“And there is an urgency to this: we need to muster the talents and the force of social sciences and the humanities to tackle the challenges ahead of us. They are many, and they become more serious by the day.

“The current pandemic has unveiled gross inequities and has pointed to fissures and flaws in our global society that can be rectified only through new insight and research.

“Not least, the pandemic has caused an unprecedented rollback of democratic freedoms in 2020 and, according to the Democracy Index report, only 8.4% of the world’s population now live in a ‘full democracy’.

“To safeguard our democracy, we have to understand it. Here is where I trust the new initiative can make a difference. In fact, each and every of the six research areas in the new strategy is poised to contribute to social cohesion and a society that is more resilient and better prepared to fend off authoritarianism as well as future health crises.”