Concerns for basic research in proposed budget for 2024

The Norwegian government is proposing to allocate NOK1 billion (US$91 million) to research on artificial intelligence (AI) over the next five years but is seeking to reduce overall funding for universities for a third consecutive year in a move critics say is bad news for basic research and educational quality.

The announcement of the NOK1 billion allocation was made by the government three weeks prior to publishing the proposed national budget on 6 October.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said the research investment would ensure that the development of AI was in line with “our values as a society”.

Minister of Research and Higher Education Sandra Borch said the allocation would help the country to understand the impact of AI upon people and society. “This means mobilisation for research and innovation in a large number of scientific areas. Norway is one of the most digitised countries in the world and we have a unique possibility to succeed,” she said.

Budget cuts

The allocation comes against the backdrop of proposed budget cuts to universities and university colleges which will receive NOK45.4 billion (US$4.1 billion) in 2024 – 0.7% less than their 2023 allocation.

The total budget for research and development in 2024 is NOK48.6 billion, which represents 0.98% of the GNP.

According to news reports NOK 338.9 million is to be moved from the Norwegian Directorate for Higher Education and Skills to the basic grant for universities and colleges. This means that the scheme with Centers for Excellence in Education (SFU) and Norwegian Partnership Programme for Global Academic Cooperation (NORPART), among other schemes, will likely be phased out.

Borch said in a statement: “Over time there has been a growth in a number of funding arrangements to address specific targets within higher education.” She said the transfer of funding from the directorate to higher education institutions “will give increased flexibility to the sector”.

Decentralisation plans

The government also wants to allocate NOK200 million to facilitate decentralised and flexible education. “We are now delivering on an important promise of the government by strengthening the funding of multi-campus institutions,” Borch said.

It is proposed that NOK18.3 million be allocated to 255 new study places, 60 of which will be for medicine in Gjøvik in the East Inland, in Agder in the South of Norway and in Stavanger. Forestry is to be re-established at the Nord University’s campus in Steinkjer. A new bachelor degree in folk dance will be established at the University of Southern Norway in Rauland.

“We need more study places where people are living which will make it possible to combine work with studies. Therefore, we are proposing to strengthen decentralised studies,” Borch said.

In the budget proposal the ministry states the government expects universities and university colleges to prioritise resources to health sciences, information technology and “fields that are important for the green changes”.

Concerns for knowledge sector

Professor Sunniva Whittaker, chair of the board of Universities Norway, said she is concerned by the proposed 0.7% reduction in the budget for higher education institutions and what it means for the knowledge sector.

“This is the third year in a row that we have seen reductions in the budget. The government proposes a grant system for some international students [but] this proposal is very limited and must be expanded significantly if it should function well,” Whittaker said.

“The government is proposing a budget for the knowledge sector without greater ambitions. The pandemic, the war in Europe and the high inflation demonstrate that our society has to be prepared for sudden and unexpected situations and crises,” she said.

“That means that we need a knowledge base that can be built on broad academic broad fields and world class research. Also, Norway needs to change. That will demand a business sector that is research intensive and that we build competence that contributes to solve the challenges of today in a greener and more effective way.”

Whittaker said Universities Norway was unhappy with the proposal not to continue the funding arrangement with SFU. “We are [also] worried that the NORPART programme will be phased out,” she added.

Head of the Norwegian Researchers’ Union Guro Lind said researchers were concerned that the governmental budget for 2024 was “not investing enough in research measured against the changing needs of society”. She said she was particularly worried about the lack of investment in long-term basic research.

“Due to the budget cuts the space for manoeuvring for universities and university colleges will be reduced,” Lind said.

Lise Lyngsnes Randeberg, president of Akademikerne, the Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations, said while the investment of NOK1 billion in research on artificial intelligence over the next five years was welcome, it was a pity that the government was reducing resources for other research.

“This investment includes research on digital technologies and how artificial intelligence is impacting upon society and applications in the private and public sectors. This investment is funded by not price-regulating other posts in the budget. This in fact means great cuts at a time of huge inflation,” Lyngsnes Randeberg said.

Quality concerns

Professor Bjørn Stensaker, vice-rector for education at the University of Oslo, told University World News there was no focus on quality in higher education in the proposed budget.

“Our concern is that the focus on quality in higher education is totally absent in this budget. The only remaining indicators in the results-based funding systems are all related to the number of European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) taken and study programme completion. As the national competitive arenas for innovation and excellence in teaching and learning are being closed down, the picture is quite clear: efficiency is priority number one,” said Stensaker.

“The innovative arenas for innovation and excellence have been important drivers for increasing the status of teaching and quality improvement within study programmes in the whole country. A number of applications have been written and various projects developed at a wide variety of institutions and within a range of disciplines.

“These programmes, and especially the SFU, have been vital for stimulating engagement for quality in the whole sector,” said Stensaker.

Professor Emeritus Ivar Bleiklie at the University of Bergen, who is an expert on higher education governance and has studied Norwegian higher education and research policies since the early 1990s, told University World News the proposed budget was “another clear signal” of where the government was headed in the area of research and higher education.

“When the nation faces difficult times ahead with rapid change, economic and social challenges nationally as well as a host of challenges to the international economic and political order, as well as to the security architecture, two reactions are possible:

“First, ‘We are in trouble! We need to save money, wait for better times and hope for the difficulties to go away!’

“Second, ‘We are in trouble! We need to use this as an opportunity to invest in education and research in order to address the challenges ahead.’

“While the latter proactive attitude characterised Norwegian policies between the 1990s and until 2021, the current government obviously does not believe in education and research in the same way as Norwegian governments have done in the last 30 years,” said Bleiklie.

Bleiklie said policies prior to 2021 pursued a goal of academic quality and excellence, influenced by the idea that basic research is the core academic activity crucial to the two other missions – teaching and third mission activities – of the university.

“It is competitive and internationally oriented. Because high quality research often requires resources and disciplinary groups of a certain size, higher education institutions should also be sufficiently large and resourceful to sustain high quality research groups.”

An agrarian populist agenda

Bleiklie said current policies were “more tightly associated with the agrarian populist agenda of the Centre Party”.

Here, the goal of national service was “shaped by an agenda that has taken higher education and research policies hostage, while their social democratic majority coalition partner lets them pursue an agenda of research budget cuts, decentralisation of higher education and some minor increases in funding for more students in medicine, forestry and folk dance, an increase of 255 students, 60 of which are in medicine, in a system of about 300,000 students.

“All expansion is to be located in smaller institutions with minimal if any research capacity. The institutions will also be told to increase their capacity in AI and medicine under the threat of moving resources to more well-behaved institutions, if they do not comply.”

Bleiklie said the populist agrarian agenda favoured a decentralised system because of the view that higher education institutions should be located ‘where the students live’ to make sure they meet local labour market and business needs.

He said an emphasis on geographic proximity and closeness between higher education institutions and their students, did not take note of the findings of a recent report from the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU) that four out of five students live within commuting distance from a higher education campus, while most them chose to study at institutions or campuses located further away.

“It is oriented to regional and national needs, where educating professionals for public services and industry looms large. It seems that most elements of the decentralisation policies are more symbolic than substantive, while the lack of confidence and investment in research also seems to signal distrust of research universities and their academic staff,” he said.