Academics say ‘total makeover’ plan will damage HE sector
Norway’s Research and Higher Education Minister Ola Borten Moe has been accused by some of the country’s top academics and his political opponents of rushing through unnecessary and uninformed changes to the sector that risk causing significant and lasting damage.
Nils Chr Stenseth, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Oslo, previous director of the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis at the University of Oslo, a former president and vice-president of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and arguably one of the most internationally renowned Norwegian scientists, told University World News the “great uncertainty” in Norwegian research was “greatly damaging”.
“People might leave science and international scientists might be reluctant to come and work in Norway,” he said.
“I’d like to remind the minister and other decision makers that it is very easy to destroy what has been built up [in respect of] great scientific environments, environments which it has taken decades to build up.
“Had I been younger, I’d consider leaving for the US – or maybe China; in fact, I might take up some of the offers I’ve gotten from these countries.”
Stenseth’s comments come in the wake of recent changes in the national higher education and research landscape driven by Borten Moe (Centre Party).
Since coming into office in 2021 the minister has fired the board of the Norwegian Research Council (RCN), introduced tuition fees for students from outside the European Union and European Economic Area, and announced reductions in government funding for higher education and research, among other actions which have alarmed the academic community.
Politicians are also worried. During a debate in parliament on 10 February MP Abid Raja of the Liberal Party (Venstre) raised concerns that the ‘total makeover’ of the research and higher education sector announced by Borten Moe at the end of 2022 was being pushed through without adequate analysis.
There are concerns that policy changes are being made prematurely, without the benefit of the final reports still expected from a review of the sector that has been initiated as part of a long-term plan for research and development.
“In this plan a larger review of the research system has been announced that is going to result in a white paper to the parliament. The government said that this paper is going to be based on a review of the National Research Council but also with a view to how the research implementing sectors are working together and with the RCN,” Raja said.
“As the government states, the changes in the research implementing sector are having an impact on the RCN and the interaction between the council and the sector. This is even more reason to have a sustainable view on the sector [before significant changes are decided upon].
“Nevertheless, the government has started to implement changes in the sector before such a sustainable analysis has been undertaken, simply because, as it says, ‘some themes are ripe for changes’ in such areas as international cooperation, R&D and coordination of research policy,” said Raja.
While Borten Moe declined a request by University World News to comment on the issues, in his reply to Raja in parliament, he said to wait to implement “the changes that all see are needed would not be a responsible policy”.
He said his aim was an “extreme renewal” of the higher education and research sector, a process that would simplify the sector, galvanise its work, and ensure that the resources of Norwegian taxpayers were used more effectively.
“We cannot any longer simply increase the resources used over the governmental budget,” he said.
Borten Moe said the aim was to fix that which was not functioning well.
“And what is not functioning properly is the governance of the research funding, not the research itself,” he said, referring to the drastic changes made by himself at the RCN, which he accused of poor economic governance.
Doing ‘more harm than good’
Speaking to Khrono after the parliamentary debate, Raja said he was concerned that Borten Moe would end up doing more harm than good.
“In research policy there are many elements that are connected and changes in one part might have consequences for others,” he is quoted as saying.
“After the rounds of changes the minister has had over the last year, I can understand that it is creating insecurity and concern when he uses words like ‘total makeover’. Ola Borten Moe is creating an impression that there is much wrong with Norwegian research and higher education, but this is not the case,” Raja said.
Åse Gornitzka, pro-rector of the University of Oslo told University World News that “changes in funding mechanisms that are introduced without a solid knowledge base can have severe, unintended consequences”.
Responding to a question from University World News about the risk of damage to the national research system through changes that are not based on a proper cost-benefit analysis, Gornitzka said: “Building up strong research communities in research intensive institutions takes time, resources, long-term commitment and a fair measure of predictability.
“Academic communities are vulnerable faced with short-term changes in policy and funding, especially if changes, for instance in the National Research Council’s programmes, coincide with cuts in the general funding.”
A populist agenda
Professor emeritus Ivar Bleiklie, an expert on higher education governance who has studied Norwegian higher education and research policies since the early 1990s, told University World News the current minister of higher education and research “emerges as the clearest example of a politician with a populist agenda designed to appeal to his Centre Party’s voters rather than strengthening the sector for which he is responsible.
“His policies include the following crucial rhetorical elements: decentralisation, fiscal austerity and accountability, and re-nationalisation of higher education, and not least a political rhetoric that is hostile towards the sector.”
Bleiklie said measures to promote the minister’s ‘total makeover’ agenda had been introduced “abruptly”. These included: “removal of the board of the RCN and introducing severe cuts in its budget while dishonestly accusing it of economic irresponsibility; interfering directly in building projects at individual universities, also with accusations of economic irresponsibility; pressuring another university to re-establish a small teacher education programme that was closed down in 2019 because of lack of student interest; and introducing tuition fees for foreign students from outside the EU-EEA area.
“While it is hard to see how any of these policies have other consequences than threatening the quality of higher education and research, it is easy to see how they appear to bolster the image of a politician who wants to present himself as a man of action and fiscal austerity.
“The populist agenda is also characterised by a complete disregard for the knowledge that has been produced in several reports on various aspects of higher education and research, such as academic freedom, the need for professionals in health care and education, and the implications of the comprehensive structural changes that have taken place in higher education.”
In December 2022, President of the Norwegian Association of Researchers Guro Lind told University World News that the “total picture [created by the reforms] is of a government unable to see the importance of international collaboration.”
Lind said the introduction of fees for non-European students was a clear example of a “politically motivated” policy measure taken in haste without due regard to consequences.
Her comments came as universities reported they did not have the citizenship information the reforms now require for those students who have already applied for a study place for 2023-24 because that information was not requested by the original application form.
According to Khrono Jens Elmelund Kjeldsen, professor of rhetoric and visual communication at the University of Bergen, described Borten Moe as “creating insecurity and concern in the way he is expressing himself, notably by using strong metaphors.
“A ‘total makeover’. What is that? And when he states that ‘the party is over’, which party is he talking about? Have I been attending such a party? And when he states: ‘No more drawing of the credit card’, which credit card is he thinking of? Is it I who [has] used the credit card?” Kjeldsen asked.
Head of the Department of Communication at the Kristiania University College in Oslo, assistant professor Ketil Raknes who has conducted research on democracy and strategic communication, told Khrono it was significant that the position of higher education and research minister was the last to be handed out after negotiation with political parties.
“When it was given to a party that never has shown any interest in higher education and research it is evident that the point of departure is bad,” he said.
“Why is he provoking the sector?” he asked before answering: “Because he can. It will have no consequences for the few academics that voted for the Centre party at the last election [because it was very few]. Then you can afford to be tough with the rhetoric,” Raknes told Khrono.