Universities press government to respect their autonomy

Universities Norway or UHR has asked the Norwegian government not to use a royal decree issued by the King in cabinet to re-establish a study programme for schoolteacher and kindergarten teacher training at Nord University’s Nesna campus, which the university’s board decided to close in 2019.

UHR argues that implementing the decree would usurp university autonomy because it would bypass the university‘s board, which has authority over such decisions in the present legislation.

In a letter to the Ministry of Education and Research on 17 December, UHR said: “This type of instruction by the owner to the board breaks with well-established practice in the sector.”

It said the board, as the highest decision-making unit of a university or university college, has the responsibility for ensuring high-quality, effective provision and professional development within the framework set by the government.

While acknowledging that the government has legitimate needs to govern development of the higher education sector and can take decisions where the authority is delegated to government departments or bodies, UHR pointed out that the newly published feasibility study on attachment arrangements for universities and university colleges (2019) states that the law of universities and university colleges gives institutions the authority and responsibility to “make decisions on the development of their activities themselves”.

“Setting aside the boards’ decisions and recommendations might lead to a weakening of the authority of the boards and their legitimacy and hence to less strategic manoeuvring space for higher education institutions to achieve their goals,” UHR said.

Unpredictable decisions

UHR underlined that predictable governing signals and respect for the governance bodies of universities are decisive for the autonomy of universities and university colleges.

The Hurdal platform, which is the political platform of the Labour-Centre Party coalition government, says it will explore adding legislation to ensure that decisions on closing down university campuses are decided at a political level by parliament rather than by the university boards, as confirmed by Minister of Research and Higher Education Ola Borten Moe in December.

UHR agrees with the government that such transfer of authority would require new legislation, but UHR opposes it because it “will break with a well-established sharing of responsibilities in the governance system and with the ‘governance by trust’ model that the government is recommending”.

UHR’s letter to the ministry is a reaction to a ministry announcement on 1 December that from the autumn of 2022 it “will again be possible to study for teacher training and kindergarten teacher training at the Nesna campus of Nord University”.

“I am very glad that we so early on have found a solution that makes it possible for students to seek teacher training at Nesna,” Minister Borten Moe said. “We will among other things see if Nesna can have a national centre for developing district-based higher education and research for the whole country.”

Professor Ivar Bleiklie, who is an expert on higher education governance, told University World News that the use of a royal decree to reverse the closure of a campus is “highly unusual”.

“Within the sector it is perceived as unfortunate interference and a break with traditional institutional autonomy as it has been practised until now,” he said.

“Norwegian universities have the right to establish or close down study programmes, while university colleges must ask for government approval if they want to establish new programmes.

“Formally, the national government can make the decision to establish (and to close) higher education institutions. This would usually follow a thorough political, bureaucratic process.”

Vague decentralisation policy

He said the “rather ham-fisted approach” pursued by the minister illustrates some of the implications of the rapidly growing political importance of higher education as a sector of public policy, and its increased significance for private business and public service provision throughout the country.

“This has turned it into an important arena for national politics. Thus, while the previous centre-right government pursued comprehensive institutional merger reforms, the incoming centre-left government following the parliamentary election in September 2021 signalled a rather vaguely formulated decentralisation policy. Its goal is to establish new ‘sites of study’ in as yet unspecified areas without higher education institutions.”

Difficult merger

The government was for several years under pressure to do something about the previous state college at Nesna because it was struggling to attract students and provide an education of sufficient quality. The situation generated significant media attention and a certain pressure on the government to close the state college.

Instead, it was merged with another state college and the University of Nordland in 2016 into a new university, Nord University. The Nesna issue then changed into an internal organisational issue, with continued financial and political pressure on the new Nord University to close what had become its Nesna campus.

According to Bleiklie, the merger had been difficult, comprising campuses spread over a large geographical area with diverse partner institutions which became part of the merger because of outside pressure rather due to potential future benefits.

“This put the new university in an even more disadvantageous position financially and academically than that of the previous partner institutions. It was under strong financial pressure to close down Nesna with little outside support and facing local resistance.”

The board of Nord University eventually decided to close the Nesna campus in 2019. The issue became part of the 2021 national election campaign and resulted in the declared intention by the minister to instruct Nord University to re-establish a teacher education programme at Nesna.