Expert group to review rules governing university status

An eight-member expert committee has been appointed by the Norwegian government to examine the accreditation rules governing the establishment of a university with the aim of updating existing regulations and reducing bureaucracy – without any compromise to quality.

The group is also required to evaluate whether the process for the establishment of a new university should be conducted within a framework of regulations or if the process should be politically governed.

Chaired by Ingvild Marheim Larsen, vice rector for education at the University of South-Eastern Norway, the committee was appointed on 11 May 2022.

Research and Higher Education Minister Ola Borten Moe said the review would take account of the fact that the global university landscape had changed considerably over the last 20 years.

“It is therefore timely to have a review of the system to see if it is too bureaucratic and if the requirements to become a university are too rigid,” he said in a press statement.

“It looks like the processes around the institutional accreditation are taking a long time and are creating much bureaucracy and we know too little about the positive and negative sides of this at the institutions. We are currently undergoing broader reform within the public sector, and it is therefore natural that the university accreditation is also evaluated,” Borten Moe said.

“During 2023 the Ministry of Research and Higher Education is going to propose a new law for universities and university colleges and in that connection, it is natural to go through the criteria for how to become and remain a university. The expert group’s report will hence be a part of this legislation,” he said.

Mandate of expert group

According to an official press release, the mandate of the expert group includes making a systematic comparison of relevant countries to evaluate differences in the criteria required to become a university and what effect these differences may have.

Currently in Norway, to operate as a university, an institution needs to offer four doctoral programmes, while institutional members of the European University Association only require one doctoral programme to qualify.

The expert group is tasked with establishing which requirements are needed to maintain and further develop high quality in education, research and dissemination, and to investigate where the authority for the different regulations shall reside – within the institution, the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education (NOKUT), the ministry, government, or the parliament.

Currently, it is NOKUT that has the responsibility for overseeing the application process for university status.

The group has also been asked to look at the potential consequences for the institutional categories of ‘scientific college’ and ‘college’ in the event of any changes.

Attractive collaborative partners

Arne Krumsvik, rector at Kristiania University College, a private institution with campuses in Oslo and Bergen, which is aspiring to become a university, told University World News: “Higher education institutions that are de facto universities according to the European understanding will be more attractive collaborative partners for universities both in Europe and globally if the Norway-specific regulations for awarding university status are normalised.

“This will be good for the institutions, for Norway and for international cooperation.”

Professor Emeritus of Oslo Metropolitan University Steinar Stjernø said it was unclear whether the move “will lead to any changes, even if it may look like the minister is interested in making it easier for universities on the west coast and in the east inland to become universities – something they will manage to become anyhow”.

Stjernø chaired an expert committee named after him (Stjernøutvalget), which produced a report in 2008 on restructuring the higher education sector that included the mergers of state higher educational institutions into regional universities as a key proposal.

He told University World News that while it might become easier under new regulations for some of the private university colleges to become universities – which might simulate them to enter new mergers so that they can fulfil the requirements size – “this would hardly impact the quality of higher education in particular”.

Too soon to tell

Professor Sunniva Whittaker, rector of the University of Agder and chair of Universities Norway (UHR), the umbrella organisation for 32 higher education institutions, described the move as an “interesting development”, but said it was too soon to comment fully on it.

“We have not had a discussion regarding this issue in Universities Norway yet. The expert group will present their conclusions ahead of a more comprehensive revision of the Act relating to universities and university colleges in Norway proposed for 2023.

“We will consider all the proposed amendments in a broad process within Universities Norway in order to present a common position. It is therefore too early to conclude how UHR will respond to issues to be dealt with by the expert group.”

Asked about the possible impact of the committee’s work on higher education in Norway, Larsen said the group had only just held its first meeting so it was too early to comment substantively.

However, she said two matters should be noted: “The university colleges at the western coast of Norway have gone so far in the process that it is expected that they will apply for university status based on today’s regulations; and it is pointed out in the mandate to the expert group that the quality requirements for universities shall not be lowered.”