Proposed HE reforms seen by critics as attack on autonomy

Higher education institutions and stakeholders have been asked to comment on proposed legislative changes that ostensibly seek to retain a decentralised system of higher education but which critics say more accurately represent an encroachment on institutional autonomy and pave the way for reduced funding for higher education and research.

The ministry of higher education and research sent out a call for comments on 22 June with a closing date of 14 October. The proposals and the comments will form the basis for new legislation to be presented to the Norwegian parliament during 2023.

While governmental reforms relating to universities in Norway have been ongoing over successive governments, the present coalition government of the Labour Party and the Centre Party has anchored the latest reforms more directly on regional political goals.

The proposals are based on previous changes in the law made in 2021 and earlier this year, as well as expert committee proposals for a new legal framework for higher education in Norway announced in February 2020.

Labour Party spokesperson Elise Waagen said in a press release the goal of the legislative initiatives was to “retain a decentralised higher education system” in Norway.

“The government wants to prevent university boards from closing down higher education institutions in smaller places in Norway. This is a direct follow-up of the Hurdalplatform [political agreement between the Labour party and the Centre party when forming a government in 2022].

In support of district-level competencies

“In the districts, teachers and nurses are lacking. To close down higher education institutions will make it difficult to recruit core competencies needed in the districts,” she said.

At the same time, there were plans afoot to change the financing system for higher education to support decentralisation, she said.

“We must rig our financing system in such a way that the boards [of higher institutions] shall not see themselves in need of closing down the smaller higher education institutions. Rather, the financing system must support the building up of good, decentralised higher education,” she explained.

Among the proposals by the ministry are a reduction in the number of temporary posts for university staff, the transfer of authority to close down institutions of higher education from the boards of universities to the King in cabinet [government]; the introduction of more transparency around the regulations for tuition fees and government support for some higher education courses; and the transfer of authority to introduce new degrees from the King to the ministry.

Also proposed is a change to the requirement that two evaluators are present at all university examinations.

“In 2021, there were more than 300,000 students in higher education, and these were producing a little more than 40 ECTS [European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System] credits each during the year.

“The huge volume, both regarding the number of students and the exams taken lead to higher education institutions having to use large resources for evaluation … Feedback from the sector indicates that the use of two evaluators, decided by parliament in 2021, demands huge resources and the sector, itself, says that this is hardly the best way of using scarce resources,” the government’s document noted.

On the issue of temporarily employed staff, Research and Higher Education Minister Ola Borten Moe has previously made it clear that universities and university colleges need to reduce their numbers of temporary posts.

Currently, temporary staff account for about 14% of employees at higher education institutions (excluding PhDs and postdoctoral students). The general average across all employment sectors is 8%.

Campus closures

The proposal to take authority for campus closures away from university boards has part of its origins in the closure of the teacher training campus of Nord University, known as Nesna, in 2019. Then minister Iselin Nybø followed the decision taken by the university board to close the institution, despite public protests.

In the 2021 election campaign, the Centre Party said that it would re-establish the teacher training facility at Nesna, which was done before Christmas that same year.

Spokeswoman for the Centre Party Mari Knutsdatter Strand said that Nesna is a good example of a shutdown being decided in the boardroom without taking the bigger picture into consideration.

“Closing down of campuses is a political decision. As politicians, we can see the organising of the study campuses in relation to the governmental budget and other priorities. And we might be able to find other solutions,” Stand told Khrono in an interview.

However, Lise Lyngsnes Randeberg, president of the Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations, disagreed, characterising the closure of campuses on the basis of political decisions as completely unacceptable. “There has to be an arms-length distance between the government and the higher education institutions,” she told Khrono.

Professor Bjørn Stensaker, vice-rector for education at the University of Oslo and a member of the Knowledge, Learning and Governance: Studies in higher education and work (HEDWORK) research group, told University World News that, from an international perspective, the regional dimensions of the issue were of greatest interest but some of the premises of the ministry’s proposals could be questioned.

“First, this is a discussion about whether we have too few or too many study places in Norway. At last count, the number [of institutions] came to 184, which is not a low number.

“Another premise is that the higher education institutions evidently can establish new study places – that is not to be decided by the King in Cabinet – but the same institutions shall not be qualified to close down campuses. This might lead to higher education institutions becoming less eager to establish new campuses.”

Broader political context

Professor emeritus Ivar Bleiklie, an expert on higher education governance, told University World News that an understanding of the broader political context could help to decipher the current government proposals for higher education.

“The current policies of the centre-left government that came to power following the 2021 parliamentary elections have departed from previous centre-left (2005-13) and centre-right (2013-21) governments.

“During the 2021 parliamentary election campaign, the coalition partners (the Labour Party and Centre Party), focused on decentralising the campus structure as their major new piece of higher education policy. It followed a quarter-century of institutional mergers, during which the number of higher education institutions was sharply reduced.

“However, apart from one campus shutdown (Nesna), the number of campuses offering higher education remained unchanged during the latest merger reform of 2015.

“Shortly after taking office, Borten Moe instructed the Nord University to re-establish the Nesna campus.

“While establishing and closing down higher education institutions are defined as political decisions to be made by national political authorities, the institutions are at liberty to make decisions about their internal organisations as they see fit,” said Bleiklie.

“As the merger processes under the former government reduced the number of institutions, however, the fate of individual campuses that previously were higher education institutions in their own right, has now become a matter of internal organisation of the newly merged multi-campus institutions.

“The move to transfer and centralise decisions on the establishment and closure of campuses from institutional boards represents a centralisation of decision-making authority in the name of decentralisation of the campus structure. After the 2021 election, this latter policy goal has been modified from ‘decentralisation’ to ‘retaining a decentralised structure’ which, for all practical intents and purposes, amounts to little more than the re-establishment of a very small, remotely located campus for teacher education.”

Bleiklie said the centralisation of decision-making authority seemed to be part of a broader pattern of centralisation of decision-making, reduced trust in institutions’ capacity for making sound decisions on their own and reduced spending on higher education and research.

Populist agenda

“Driving this policy seems to be the minister’s populist agenda and disregard for higher education and research which have resulted in several instances of unprecedented interference in internal university decision-making,” he said.

He cited, as an example, the ministry ordering the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the country’s largest university, to cancel construction plans for a major research centre (Ocean Space Centre).

Another example, he said, was the sudden replacement of the board of the Research Council of Norway (RCN), while blaming the RCN for irresponsible budget practices that had been in place for years under a tacit agreement between the ministry and the RCN under several different governments.

“Finally, the minister has made up his mind, without any evidence, that higher education institutions do too little third-mission activities, such as participating in policy discussion in public media,” said Bleiklie.

Professor Nils Christian Stenseth, previous director of the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis at the University of Oslo and a former president and vice-president of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, wrote in a well-read story in Khrono that he is appealing for all academics not to vote for the Labour Party or the Centre Party and warned that “unengaged politicians [now] can do permanent damage to Norwegian research”.

He told University World News he believed it was important that “we make it possible for the institutions, themselves, to make decisions enabling them to build up strong research groups at top international level.

“Politicians should have no role in that process, except for providing the funds needed for developing such strong research groups. Doing so will benefit the country as well as the international community, all of which is dependent upon the science community producing the insights we all need to develop our society.”