Fears for global academic cooperation as call shelved

The postponement of the 2023 call for applications by the Norwegian Partnership Programme for Global Academic Cooperation (NORPART) with developing countries to spring of next year is worrying academics who see the move as another signal of a more insular approach by the Norwegian government.

They say it is harming its efforts to support university collaboration towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The application deadline for the fund, which has a total value of NOK175 million (US$17 million), was previously set at 20 September 2023.

The decision to postpone the grant process was made in dialogue with the Norwegian Directorate of Higher Education and Skills (HK-dir), which administers the programme, and the Ministry of Education and Research which funds it together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to Khrono, quoting HK-dir director Ragnhild Tungesvik, the move is a response to the ‘unclear’ financial situation.

The suspension of the programme follows the recent decision by the Norwegian government to stop funding the studies of university students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland.

State Secretary in the Ministry of Education and Research Oddmund Løksengaard Hoel told Khrono that with the introduction of tuition fees for non-European students, it was now “natural to look at all the instruments in the internationalisation field”.

He said that the government is “taking several measures to strengthen the sector” and is looking for better “coordination of the different measures for strengthening internationalisation”.

A letter to inform higher education institutions of the NORPART grant postponement was sent by HK-dir in June. Institutions had then been working for several months to set up partnership project applications with their international counterparts.

The letter coincided with the approach of the summer holidays in Norway when parliamentary watchdogs are not in regular attendance. Very few comments in response to the decision have been published.

Support for postgraduate study

NORPART supports academic partnerships and student mobility with an emphasis on masters and PhD level and other initiatives between higher education institutions in Norway and selected developing countries.

It was established in 2016 and has been developed based on experiences from the quota scheme, which ran from 1994-2016 to support individual students taking the full degrees in Norway, and the Norwegian Programme for Development, Research and Education or NUFU programme which supported institutional collaboration and mobility in higher education between Norwegian institutions and institutions in the Global South.

According to NORPART rules, applications for funding must include at least one partner that is an accredited higher education institution in one of the NORPART partner countries which are: Afghanistan, Angola, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Indonesia, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Pakistan, Palestine, Peru, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa (HDIs), South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The NORPART projects are aimed at strengthening partnerships for education and research between the partner countries and Norway in all academic fields, increased quality and internationalisation of academic programs at participating institutions, and increased mobility of students.

The tearing down of a brand

University of Oslo Rector Svein Stølen said the suspension of the NORPART programme for 2023 was “another signal that international solidarity is not prioritised by the government”. University of Bergen Rector Margareth Hagen said although it is hoped that the postponement represents a short-term adaptation measure, it is clear that the move is “creating worries”.

Professor Bjørn Stensaker, vice-rector for education at the University of Oslo, told University World News that Norway’s reputation as “a trustworthy and predictable partner in international collaboration may suffer from these sudden shifts in policies we have witnessed lately.

“International collaboration is based on mutual trust and continuous nurturing. It takes time to build such collaborations, and unpredictable framework conditions could be damaging beyond the announced postponement.”

Meanwhile, Norwegian higher education institutions are reporting significant effects from the introduction of tuition fees for non-European and Swiss students.

Trondheim Academy of Fine Art told university newspaper Universitetsavisa it has not admitted a single student from outside Europe this year due to the introduction of tuition fees of NOK480,000 per year and it has lost 75% of their students, accepting only six or seven this year.

Similar situations are reported by several other universities.

Professor Emeritus Rune Nilsen who worked with developmental issues for more than three decades and is former pro-rector of the University of Bergen, told University World News the government’s postponement of the NORPART funding was “frighteningly non-solidaric”, but in line with the government’s recent behaviour.

Nilsen described it as a “planned” (or is it ‘unplanned’?) tearing down of what was a Norwegian brand after Gro Harlem Brundtland was fronting ‘our common future’ in the UN.

“It is remarkable that the present prime minister [Jonas Gahr Støre], when he was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, ordered and had made a ‘white paper’ on global health, which harvested great international acclaim,” he said.

“A government working for the UN Sustainable Development Goals has now lost a main element: partnership and good research and research training for what is important for 90% of the people on Earth.

“It was underlined and supported by Støre that without global perspectives and partnerships with the Global South we are losing out on important knowledge.

“When will you, our PM, give your minister for research some guidelines?” Nilsen asked.

Failure to prioritise internationalisation

Arnhild Leer-Helgesen, a faculty member at the University of Agder and chair of the Norwegian Association for Development Research, recently told Panorama, an independent newsletter on Norwegian development assistance, that support for international research is becoming increasingly narrow.

“Most of it is now channelled to selected countries and themes that are supporting Norway’s strategic interests, and this is incomprehensible in a world with global crises, where the sustainable development goals shall give the directions for the policy,” she said.

Students say they are also worried about the government’s direction.

Oline Sæther, president of the Norwegian National Union of Students, said the move was an indication that the government was “failing to prioritise internationalisation within academia”.

It follows hard upon the ‘loss’ for Norwegian higher education represented by the low number of international students coming to study in the country this fall as a result of the introduction of fees for students outside the EEA.

“International cooperation and mobility are integral parts of our education system. With the postponement of NORPART we expect that even fewer students from the partner countries will be able to come to Norway and contribute to our academic community.”

Wider cuts

Leer-Helgesen said it was not only the suspension of the NORPART programme and the tuition fees for students from outside Europe that were facing cuts.

“NORGLOBAL is another programme that has funded important research within global development, but this programme was cut in 2022. That implied that the support offered by the programme for participants from the South could now come to Norwegian, Nordic, and international conferences on global development,” Leer-Helgesen argued.

Attempts by Panorama to establish why NORGLOBAL was cut were unsuccessful. According to the report, no-one in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could give an answer and referred journalists to the Norwegian Research Council (NRC) which is managing the programme. The NRC, however, said it could not answer the question until August, due to the holidays.

‘Unwise’ political decisions

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, former rector of the University of Oslo and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and now acting secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, told University World News:

“Returning to Norway after close to six years in Sweden I am confused and saddened by what I see. Tuition fees have been introduced and now I learn that the NORPART programme is put on hold.

“This is not the Norway that I knew. Norway is known for punching above its weight when it comes to international collaboration and solidarity. This reputation has been built over decades and might now be destroyed in one fell swoop through unwise political decisions.

“My plea to the government: hold your horses and invite relevant stakeholders to a dialogue on how to maintain and develop international collaboration when we need it the most. In an era of global challenges and geopolitical turbulence we need more international cooperation – not less.”

Ottersen referred to the government’s official homepage which states that Norway “must be part of international cooperation efforts in order to ensure quality and renewal in research.

“Norway also has a responsibility to contribute to international knowledge development and help to solve common problems and challenges.”

He said a discontinuation of the NORPART programme stands as “the perfect negation of this proud ambition”.