Debate on international academics sparks national row

For some time, the universities’ daily newsletter Khrono has been running interviews with researchers on the theme: Why are Norwegian scientists reluctant to take part in public debate? Recently, the topic exploded into a controversy over the role and value of international academics and their impacts on Norwegian science and society.

On 27 September the publication interviewed Dr Cecilie Hellestveit, a lawyer and social scientist at the Norwegian Academy of International Law. She said, among many other things, that one aspect of the matter was that “more and more scientific positions are given to international scientists and this needs to be discussed”.

She said: “International researchers do not know Norwegian society and they are not here to invest in it. They are here because they did not get a job at universities [abroad] with the greatest prestige, yet.”

She stated that some academic fields are now so dominated by foreign researchers that there are no Norwegians left on the staff. “What is the point of research that does not have Norwegian society as a point of departure?”

Hellestveit’s views prompted a long stream of comments on her’s and other people’s Facebook pages, and led to several more interviews in Khrono.

Among the interviewees was Professor Curt Rice, an American who is a Norwegian linguist and has lived in Norway for many years. Rice started off as a professor at the University of Tromsø and has served as rector of Oslo and Akershus University College, of Oslo Met University and now of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

Rice said that Hellestveit ought to document such statements through research, and criticised Khrono for printing the story.

This led to a new Khrono article including interviews with several university rectors that condemned Rice for suggesting constraining the right of scientists to publish their views. It has become Khrono’s most-read article in recent weeks.

The major Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten subsequently published an editorial accusing Rice of supporting censorship. Rice has been no stranger to controversy in Norway, especially over his views that academics should publish in English and that universities should make more use of English.

Curt Rice apologises

In this case, Rice wrote a letter of apology that was published in Aftenposten and Khrono. He said: “The debate on international researchers in the Norwegian university sector could have become good and constructive. It ran into the wrong track recently when I published a statement on the role of the media that I cannot stand by.

“The comments by Cecilie Hellestveit in Khrono engaged and provoked me. She was quoted [as saying] that “international scientists … are not here to invest [in Norwegian society]”. I found this too categorical and too simple.

“What I said in a moment of frustration is something I do not mean: Hellestveit and other researchers should of course have the right to express themselves without someone instructing them. This was unwise of me and I regret this.”

Rice said that in the interview he had raised a question about the role of Khrono and suggested that Hellestveit should not have been allowed to have such opinions published. “I said this in a moment of frustration, and it is not something that I stand for. I respect and support the independence of the media in bringing debates in the way they find most important and correct,” Rice said.

International scientists react

Professor Mariel Aguilar-Støen of the Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo, commented to University World News: “I welcome the debate on internationalisation, and I am happy that Khrono has revived it this year. I cannot think of any reason why Khrono should avoid this or any other debate.

“We had a similar debate in 2017, I would expect that the issue would be discussed again later. But I hope that the participants in the debate, both the media and others, can frame the debate outside a feelings perspective, so as to make it broader and more interesting.”

Aguilar-Støen appreciated the pointed interventions of Svein Stølen and Åse Gornitzka – respectively, the rector and pro-rector of the University of Oslo – in the debate and hoped others would get involved in future.

Professor Abbas Strømmen-Bakhtiar of Nord University Business School told University World News: “I find the whole discussion smells of nationalism and populism that, unfortunately, has been spreading across Norway and Europe for quite some time.”

“Contrary to the wishes of many countries that hope to get a productive postgraduate person with 17 years of experience, some in Norway try to stop them coming here. These politicians should know that many countries, such as the United States and Canada, have been enhancing their scientific communities with immigrant brains,” Strømmen-Bakhtiar said.

“In addition, PhD candidates are accepted on their merits and not nationality or place of origin. We should try our best to keep them in Norway when they finish their study rather than stopping them to come here.”

Professor Bjørn Kvalsvik Nicolaysen, professor of literacy studies at the University of Stavanger, said rather satirically: “This is a rather new pattern with Khrono: they now behave like a tabloid coming with ‘voices against’ or people representing positions who are presented as attacked or injured.

“But in this way it is difficult to follow the original observations and now it is not possible to get through all the offended reactions to the real question of this case: policy for development of academic fields. Nevertheless, chapeau! Cecilie Hellestveit for fronting this discussion.”

Intense debate continues

The reactions have been intense, with an avalanche of interventions on social media, notably by Cecilie Hellestveit. She posted 12 on her Facebook page, and received a large number of comments.

Several op-ed articles have appeared in major newspapers. In Khrono, University of Oslo leaders Svein Stølen and Åse Gornitzka wrote: “Internationalisation has not gone too far.” They stated that out of 34,512 published articles by academics at the university from 2016 to 2021, 60% were written together with international colleagues.

“Our campus is characterised by great diversity. Over the last years, 4,242 out of 27,832 full-time students have citizenship outside Norway.”

On 6 October, in a large font size in Khrono, legal scholar Professor Mads Andenæs of the University of Oslo said that one should not raise this question on internationalisation, and described Hellestveit as lacking common decency and as rude.

“Universities are a collective unity. The repeated attacks on our international colleagues are un-collegial behaviour. Common decency and civil politeness should be practised,” he said. Then he went on the attack, stating: “Not one of those having used the highest voice in this discussion on the critical side, would get a job at a university under today’s requirements.”

Cecilie Hellestveit sums up

Cecilie Hellestveit sent this summing up of the discussions and interventions to University World News: “My initial comment to Khrono was listed as one factor among roughly 10 that I pointed to in order to explain the relative absence of broader participation by academics in Norway in different types of public debates in this country.

“’International researchers [form] a composite group of people. Some are here to invest in research and in Norway, others are here due to scientific positions alone. This is legitimate, and largely what the system incentivises.

“My point is that since certain types of researchers do not know the local language or the local culture, they cannot assume the role that the Norwegian university system to some extent expects from them,” Hellestveit stated.

“Over time, this development will leave Norway with a substantial problem in terms of our own public debates, the type of research that our universities generate, its relevance for Norwegian society and eventually also the role of universities in our country.”

Secondly, said Hellestveit, the debate “needs to take place before the development goes too far in certain scientific fields. There are very diverse considerations that need to be taken [into account] in the different fields of science.

“My main objective is to allow this debate to take place, and for Norwegian society to take appropriate measures to make sure that our scientific community is well-balanced in terms of international and national participation, and adjusted to the needs, resources and ambitions of each scientific field and the type of research that Norwegian society (and the world) needs”.

And thirdly: “This debate is important. The problem is not personal, it is structural. If the scientific community is unable to discuss structural problems in society just because it also concerns them, who else can we expect to take on this task?”

Raging on

Hellestveit has had headlines and a podcast in the cultural newspaper Morgenbladet on whether internationalisation of Norwegian universities has gone too far, in which she debated with Professor Tore Wig. On 8 October she had a whole page in Aftenposten: “Researcher Cecilie Hellestveit says time is more than ripe for a debate on international academics.” And on the same day she defended her views in a debate article in Morgenbladet.

On social media the interventions now are markedly in support of Hellestveit’s position.

The proportion of scholars not born in Norway has been rising sharply in higher education in the past decade. A report earlier this year by the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education and by Statistics Norway showed that 27% of professors were not born in Norway – and the figure was 71% for postdoc positions.

Thus, the debate is guaranteed to rage on.