Education agencies reorganised into mega-directorate

The ministry is merging smaller governmental units on 1 July to create a large directorate for higher education as part of an ongoing process of reforms in the educational system in Norway from kindergarten to lifelong learning, the ministry has announced.

Following the announcement on 4 February, the following units are being merged:

• DIKU, the Norwegian Agency for International Cooperation and Quality Enhancement in Higher Education, with 130 full-time staff and headquarters in Bergen.

• Skills Norway, the present Directorate for Lifelong Learning, with 170 staff members and offices in Tromsø, Bergen and Oslo.

• Parts of UNIT, the Directorate for ICT and Joint Services in Higher Education and Research, which has 200 employees and headquarters in Trondheim and an office in Oslo.

• Parts of the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT), with a staff of 150 and the main office in Oslo.

• Universell at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, which is the national coordinator of accessibility of higher education in Norway, and two functions today undertaken at NSD – the Norwegian Centre for Research Data – will also be transferred.

In total several hundred members of staff in the directorates will be affected by the reorganisation of the combined parts into new divisions, with most heads becoming deputies, and staff being reassigned to new divisions. The new directorate will be established by an extension of DIKU in Bergen.

The ministry said that there will not be a reduction in staff as a consequence of the merger.

Merger long in the pipeline

“The government has high ambitions for education and competence. Building good systems that can make our educational system more available will contribute to more people [being able to] achieve the education they need to live good and self-governed lives,” said Minister of Research and Higher Education Henrik Asheim.

In a press statement, the ministry said that it is almost five years since publication of the expert report, The Knowledge Sector Seen from Outside, which criticised government control over the administration of universities and university colleges as demanding and ineffective.

The ongoing work towards better governance of the higher education sector by the ministry has received a lot of criticism from higher education institutions, in that there are still many overlapping work areas and responsibilities between the ministry and the directorates.

“These feedbacks explicitly state the need to sort out the system. Our education sector is reaching new milestones and is in development all the time, which means that the apparatus serving it has to adapt. The new directorate will have a great role to play to reach new goals for quality, capacity and accessibility of our educational system,” Asheim said.

Existing directorates positive

Harald Nybølet, director general at DIKU, said the change would mean “a better alignment between the directorates”.

“DIKU will contribute to the new directorate becoming a powerful and good tool for the educational sector, where both higher education institutions, and students and other actors are central. A directorate where quality development will be a leading star for all that we do.”

He noted with interest that the main office of the directorate will be near Bergen, a “city of knowledge with a large and important higher education milieu”.

“An important goal is that the new directorate shall see the competence policy in context across vocational training, university colleges and universities and contribute to strengthening adults’ competence at all educational levels.”

The new directorate will also be responsible for providing information about education and for career guidance, for tasks of integrating between the levels and for adults at all levels.

Sveinung Skule, director of Skills Norway, said the new directorate will contribute to greater unity and context in skills policy.

“We get a broader set of tools, better data and a more combined knowledge base.”

Roar Olsen, director of UNIT, welcomed the reorganisation. “I think that this will lead to a needed sorting out of roles, better goal attainment and more unifying services to the sectors that we are serving.”

Mixed response from universities

Anne Borg, rector of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), via Twitter said the move was “very positive” and she looked forward to the white paper for parliament on good governance in the sector, announced for the spring, under which MPs will decide on the principles for the government’s management of higher education.

Rector of Oslo University, Professor Svein Stølen, told Forskerforum, the researchers’ magazine, that as a society we “need a balance between how much resources and energy are channelled into primary activities, and how much goes to monitoring and control”.

He did not want the mandate given to the directorates to create an authority that will interfere with the institutional self-governance.

Nina Sandberg, the Labour party’s spokesperson for higher education, told Forskerforum that she is puzzled about the timing of the creation of the mega-directorate before the white paper. She said instead of centralising power, trust should be placed in academic staff and more resources to do academic work.

Higher education differentiation

Professor Emeritus Ivar Bleiklie, an expert on higher education governance, told University World News: “The merger proposal regarding central government units responsible for different aspects of Norwegian higher education governance can be understood against various backdrops: the development, growth and differentiation of the national higher education system, the development of European-level ideas and initiatives about higher education management, and ideological shifts regarding proper public sector management more generally.”

He said there has been tremendous growth and diversification of the Norwegian higher education system since the 1970s. This has increased the political cost, importance, and visibility of the sector.

“One way of meeting these challenges has been to establish new agencies supporting the development and provision of specific services to promote and improve various aspects of higher education such as internationalisation or collaboration among institutions to promote student and staff mobility, quality of teaching and research, accreditation of higher education institutions, research funding, and not least reporting systems to keep track of the performance of the sector and its various institutions.”

He said the trend until the early 2000s has been differentiation of central government agencies through the establishment of specialised units responsible for these new tasks.

“However, complaints from higher education institutions have increased about such things as the increasing burden of uncoordinated reporting requirements from an increasing number of central government agencies. This has also been the official justification for the reform provided by the minister of higher education.”

He said differentiation has also been driven by ideas and initiatives at the European level. In the wake of the expansion of European higher education with growing numbers of students and the inclusion of non-university institutions, concerns about the quality of higher education became an increasingly important issue and led to the establishment of quality assurance and accreditation agencies during the 1990s.

Finally, with the rise of managerialism or New Public Management as a dominant public management ideology, specialisation of public government units was promoted as an ideal way of achieving efficient and non-bureaucratic management of public affairs.

“Since the 2000s this trend has slowly been reversed through a strengthened international emphasis on co-ordination and mergers of previous independent and specialised units.

“In Norwegian higher education this has led to a series of mergers of government units. Thus, the units that are going to be merged into a large directorate, are themselves the product of mergers of smaller units in the past decade,” he said.