University reforms to ensure relevance to working life

The Norwegian government has put proposals before parliament to increase the relevance of higher education to ‘working life’ to ensure that graduates are better prepared for employment.

In a White Paper (in Norwegian) put before parliament last month, the government said it would continue to invest in flexible and more decentralised education and will ask the Government Loan Board to make the regulations more adapted to lifelong learning challenges and instruct the Directorate for Higher Education to tune financial support regulations more to the needs of working life.

In a second White Paper on the governance of public universities put before parliament last month, the government proposed that the regulations be eased so that more universities can provide professional degrees on psychology, law, theology.

No decision has yet been made on whether also to ease the regulation for medical studies and veterinary medicine. But the ministry has pledged to investigate whether doctors could be trained at more universities, which is a hot issue in Norway where half of all doctors are trained abroad.

The government is seeking more power to influence the output of higher education, particularly its effectiveness in creating the ‘workforce of the future’.

“We have to govern the universities and the university colleges so that we get more out of the NOK40 billion [US$4.8 billion] we today invest in the sector,” said the Norwegian Minister of Higher Education and Research, Henrik Asheim, at the launch of the paper.

He claimed the government wants to “govern less in details” and “more in view of the overarching goals”.

The government has pledged to examine and send for consultation proposals for changes in the regulation for tuition fees that would allow more universities to offer more courses for people with working life experience, funded by tuition fees.

It also intends to introduce student ‘active learning’ and teaching reforms to include working methods used in working life.

An example of active learning might, for instance, involve a psychology degree student participating with a clinical psychologist in performing a test used to map out a patient’s psychological problems.

“Students will have skills that society demands and be taught how such skills can be used. The instruction will be research-based and developed in cooperation with users so that businesses can become more familiar with the skills of the students,” the ‘relevance to working life’ paper says.

The government plans to encourage higher education to be more geared to employability and, in particular, ask the institutions to follow up the proposals in the government’s Digitalisation strategy, which encourages learning of digital competences, co-creation of learning, open research and sharing and re-use of data.

It plans to find ways to stimulate flexible provision by higher education institutions to allow bachelor degree courses to be taken into account in the masters degree – for instance, if there is a compulsory element in a masters degree that the student has already taken in their bachelor degree they would not have to do it again for the masters – and to find ways of making the admission to masters degrees more flexible, increasing mobility between institutions.

The government is keen stimulate more degrees composed across faculty lines, which today is made difficult by admission criteria.

The government will encourage a new approach to be taken for the first year of the doctorate degree.

Currently, the compulsory first year of doctorates focus mostly on teaching qualification and academic methodology, but the government wants to fund universities to launch pilot projects involving working life participation in the first year.

The government will also examine the regulations for quality in practical work and investigate whether the communes can take a greater responsibility for education of health and social work students and revise the instructions for cooperation in research, innovation and education between regional health institutions and universities and university colleges.

Stakeholders: ‘No new funding?’

Guro Lind, president of the Norwegian Association of Researchers, which has 22,000 members, accused the government of expecting institutions to prioritise their own resources to promote working life relevance.

“I would like to remind [the government] that universities and university colleges have been exposed to a ‘cheese-cutter-cut’ of close to NOK1.5 billion [US$179 million] over the past seven years and that the administrative support apparatus now is at a minimum.”

Lise Lyngsnes Randeberg, president of the Norwegian Society of Graduate Technical and Scientific Professionals (TEKNA), which has 77,000 members, accused the government of starting the process of reforming the funding model by “adding new tasks without funding”.

She said this “makes us fear that universities once again will get new priority areas such as decentralised teaching, new forms of examination, digital teaching tasks without being supported by additional funding to do these new tasks”.

‘Neoliberal twist’

Associate Professor Tor Halvorsen, at the department of administration and organisation theory at the University of Bergen, said high tempo of reform is weakening the researcher’s position because they are being worked out by bureaucrats who are not consulting with academics.

He told University World News that the proposals represented “another neoliberal twist” to the development of higher education, leaving it to the “users of knowledge” to decide what is relevant knowledge if investments in higher education are to be justified.

“Human capital focus and result-based governance, strengthening competition and demands for ‘specialisation’ to be competitive at ‘something’, is the basic idea for the structuring of the higher education landscape,” he said.

Associate Professor of Digital Culture at the University of Bergen Daniel Apollon, who is also an EU academic expert, told University World News that the work-life relevance paper, inspired by the OECD 2018 report on Norway, “identifies clear weaknesses as well as strengths of the Norwegian higher education system. It outlines pertinent but too fragmented measures to alleviate structural weaknesses in this sector.”

He said the paper adopts the general educational goals of the World Economic Forum (WEF) too uncritically and, while it seemingly aligns with the European Union’s schemes for further development of higher education, it “lacks full adherence to the more socially and culturally proactive EU policies” such as the EU’s Europe Agenda 2020.

Apollon also said the White Paper was vague about what is meant by ‘work-life’ relevance in a post COVID-19 economy, with minimal analysis of how new jobs will be created when old jobs disappear or what tomorrow’s jobs and skills will look like.

And the proposals to update governance of universities were equally puzzling, with no details of how higher education budgets should be remodelled.

“It may be a well-intentioned recipe for achieving more private-public dysfunction in Norwegian universities,” Apollon said.

Adaptation to labour markets

Dirk van Damme, who is head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division (IMEP) in the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, and a frequent visitor to Nordic governments for discussions on higher education, told University World News: “With tertiary attainment rates increasing, but also with growing concerns about degree inflation and skills mismatches on the labour market, many governments are getting concerned about the labour market relevance of higher education qualifications.

“They increasingly try to incentivise universities to take labour market developments into account when designing programmes.

“But there are no simple answers. A high number of graduates work in other fields than those they have studied for.

“A narrow, instrumentalist view on labour market relevance should be avoided. But graduates should have the skills which enable them to navigate an increasingly volatile professional environment, whatever their field of study.”

Nina Sandberg, the spokesperson of the Labour Party in opposition in the Norwegian parliament and a member of the educational committee, told University World News: “Both these two white papers and the mobility white paper have been presented to parliament this spring together with the revision of the university law.

“Obviously, it is an advantage to see all these issues in context. On the other hand, given the importance of these proposals, we risk that we politicians do not get sufficient time to consider the motions, debating and amending them.”