Nord University fights to save its university status

The fate of Nord University’s bid to avoid becoming the first Norwegian higher education institution to be stripped of its university status will not be known until later in the year.

The threat of the unprecedented action would be realised if the university fails to satisfy the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education or NOKUT that it has adequately addressed issues arising from its review (in Norwegian) of the PhD study programme in the theory and practice of education applied to professions (nursing, kindergarten, music and others), carried out in November 2019.

Nord University has submitted its proposals to NOKUT and now awaits a verdict later in the year.

The 2019 review concluded that the PhD programme did not fulfil all the criteria needed to be accredited. Nord University, upon publication of the report and after a board discussion, had asked for a two-year deadline to improve the shortcomings, as allowed under the university law.

The demands in the NOKUT evaluation were that the university has to document that the PhD programme has a unified scientific platform, that there is a connection between the elements in the programme, that the scientific staff have the required academic qualifications and that it can document research results at an international level.

“The university has to define and delimit the area for the doctoral degree more clearly. This is needed in order to be able to evaluate if the demands on the study and the academic staff are satisfactory,” Director General of NOKUT Terje Mørland said in 2019 when the evaluation report was published.

NOKUT said that if Nord University could not show that the demands set out in the report had been met by 13 February 2022, it would withdraw accreditation of the PhD programme. This would mean that the university would have to close down the PhD programme and transfer all PhD students to other institutions so that they can complete their PhD training.

This evaluation is of critical importance for Nord University, with much wider ramifications than the PhD programme in question, since accreditation as a university in Norway is conditional upon having four accredited PhD programmes and the university only has three others, in aquatic biosciences, business and sociology.

Therefore, the university is at risk of losing its university status, which has never happened before in Norway.

Nord University’s response

On 13 February 2022, Nord University reported back to NOKUT on how it had addressed the concerns raised by the 2019 review.

The PhD programme had changed its name to the ‘doctoral programme in science of professions’ and was now linked to international research.

“The PhD in Science of Professions is a three-year full-time programme that includes a training component and research work at a high scientific level,” Nord University said in its report to NOKUT.

“The programme highlights current, socially relevant issues that put the field of professional practice at the centre and will contribute to innovative processes in professions.”

It said the programme is “regionally anchored, shall be nationally and internationally profiled, and will generate new knowledge relevant to national policy in health and education, among other things”.

The interdisciplinary study programme is jointly managed by the faculty of nursing and health sciences and the faculty of education and arts at Nord University.

NOKUT will now appoint a new committee to review the PhD programme and has said it will report back during 2022.

Professor Ketil Eiane, prorector for research and development at Nord University, who has led the work revising the doctoral programme, said in a press release that they have addressed the criticisms raised by NOKUT after involving many staff in “the most comprehensive work until now to improve the programme”.

“This is now an empirical based doctoral programme in which we have strengthened the relationship between research and practice. The programme now educates researchers who will contribute to new knowledge in those welfare services we are needing in our society,” he said.

“The PhD programme is therefore an important contribution to the professions that the welfare society needs,” he said.

In a note to the board of Nord University of 9 February 2022, Eiane said that a core of staff members had been established with academic competence in several academic fields to be responsible for the further academic development of the PhD programme and that a new study plan with learning outcome descriptions had been worked out.

In addition, a new organisational model with clear responsibilities and mandates had been established. This included a doctoral committee, a working committee and a cross-scientific ‘development forum’ that are responsible for developing the programme.

PhD students worried

However, before the board meeting on 9 February, 26 of the 73 PhD students on the doctoral programme sent a letter of criticism to board members, Forskerforum, the researchers’ magazine, reported.

“Over the past two years we have asked that our worries be taken seriously and that we shall be heard in the revision process [of the PhD programme]. Now we feel that these questions that are vital for securing our future and which we have addressed on several occasions are still not being heard,” they wrote.

In the board meeting, Eiane said that Nord University had negotiated agreements with 12 institutions for the transfer of their PhD students in the event that the accreditation is not awarded by NOKUT.

The institutions include the University of Tromsø, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology or NTNU, the University of South-Eastern Norway, the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences and Oslo Metropolitan University.

Some of them could also be transferred to other doctoral programmes at Nord University.

The PhD students said they had not been consulted in these negotiations and that they are critical of Nord University for handling these discussions without checking which alternative study programmes best fit their PhD studies.

Prorector Eiane said that he did not understand this criticism because the university had worked out several contingency plans to secure their PhD training.

Forskerforum asked NOKUT Director Kristin Vinje what would happen if NOKUT did not approve the changes Nord University had made in the PhD programme in science of professions.

Referring to the possibility of it losing its university status, she said: “I do not know how such an eventuality would happen. It has never happened before.”