Universities press for more autonomy under new government

A left-leaning coalition will take power following the general election in Norway on 12 September, with higher education expected to be high on the new government’s agenda.

Initially the three parties that together could form a majority – Labour Party (48 seats out of 169), the Centre Party (28 seats) and the Socialist Left Party (13 seats) – were negotiating to establish a majority coalition government, replacing the Conservative Party-led government which was in power as a minority government for eight years.

However, on 29 September the Socialist Left Party, SV, withdrew from the negotiations, a decision which the media described as a victory for the leader of the Centre Party, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, who had said in the election campaign that he would not govern together with the Socialist Left Party.

Labour and the Centre Party will now try to form a minority government.

Higher education and research were a prominent issue in the election campaign this time. The prime minister to be, Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party, said in May that the Labour Party now seeks the post of minister for higher education and research in a Labour-led government, a post the Labour Party had not held since 2001.

During the Conservative-led government era there were several far-reaching reforms in higher education, with mergers of higher education institutions, increasing numbers of students at private institutions, the introduction of a flat-rate cut of 0.5% on all governmental budgets to be transferred to ‘special politically important areas’, and an increased monitoring of statistical indicators of institutions and staff performance, labelled as ‘New Public Management’, which has been severely criticised.

In the election campaign several of the political parties said they would address these reforms if elected and redress some of the actions decided upon by the former government and in parliament.

Back in July, the major Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten reported that several hundred people met at Nesna – a college merged into Nord University in 2016 as part of university reforms and then closed by a decision of the Nord University board in 2019 – where Vedum, the Centre Party leader, promised to re-open the college.

“After the election we will write a governmental declaration that there shall be a college at Nesna as a symbol of a new politics,” he said.

Universities Norway intervenes

Meanwhile, the Universities Norway (UHR) organisation, representing 32 Norwegian higher education institutions, sent an open letter to the coalition negotiators presenting seven demands based on the principle that “university autonomy is the best way of securing quality and thrust in knowledge”.

The demands, which were followed up by several interviews by Professor Sunniva Whittaker, chair of the board of UHR, who is also rector at the University of Agder, are:

• Reform governance of the higher education sector with more overarching objectives and less ‘governance by details’.

• Improve the conditions for basic and long-term research and take action to have more permanent top research milieus in Norway.

• Strengthen the public R&D investment beyond the current 1% of the GNP (gross national product) and work for realising the goal of 3% of GNP for research by 2030.

• Give higher education institutions an action space for realising an even higher responsibility for lifelong learning.

• Stop the budget cuts to universities. (The so-called ABE reform of 0.5% budget cuts at all governmental institutions – ‘cutting bureaucracy and increasing efficiency through budget cuts’ – introduced by the Solberg government in 2015.)

• Set up an advanced plan for digitalisation, including infrastructure and e-infrastructure and upgrading of learning and research buildings.

• Meet the students’ demand for increased funding to each student (in the form of grants and loans) by raising the annual allocation to NOK159,600 (US$18,300), to be regulated each year, and build more new and green housing for students.

After the letter was published, Whittaker was interviewed by the newspaper VG and by the researchers’ magazine Forskerforum and was asked if UHR’s demands to strengthen university autonomy also implied that politicians should not intervene and should revoke the decision to close down the Nesna college.

She said: “Yes, we are against a detailed governance by the government of the sector. This includes the closing down of Nesna. Our standpoint is that it is the higher education institutions themselves and their boards that have to decide on these matters.”

Letter should not have been sent

In the weekly Dagens Perspektiv on September 29 the editor, Magne Lerø, wrote: “If there is something the new government will not care about, it is the letter from UHR. This letter Universities Norway should not have sent. They are not served by placing themselves on a collision course with the new government.”

But Professor Sigmund Grønmo, who was rector at the University of Bergen from 2005 to 2013 and who grew up in the Nordland county, told University World News: “The re-opening of Nesna college is no threat to the autonomy of universities.”

He said UHR had formulated the seven points seeking to have them included in the government declaration and one of them, the call for governance reform with overarching goals, is particularly important.

In an interview with VG on 29 September, Whittaker of UHR said the resistance to ‘governance by details’ is relevant for the closure of study places like Nesna. She said that it was the governing boards of the higher education institutions that have this authority. “Even if this view is controversial … in principle, it is the universities and the university colleges that have the autonomy to decide how many study locations they should have.”

Grønmo said VG had gone too far in saying that the university sector is “demanding that the Centre Party in government should keep its hands off Nesna”.

“The most important point is this: Even if it is the universities and the university colleges that themselves decide upon their study places, it is the government and parliament that decide where universities and university colleges shall be located.

“They can decide to re-establish the Nesna college as an autonomous college without threatening the autonomy of other universities or university colleges,” Grønmo told University World News.