Norway puts plans for ‘corporate’ universities on ice

Scholar claims campaign from academics and students was instrumental in overturning proposal, but fears remain over potential changes in financial autonomy

January 23, 2019
Boat on ice
Source: Getty

The growing corporatisation of universities in northern Europe has frozen to a halt in Norway, where academics and students are claiming a rare victory in the fight against managerialism.

Iselin Nybø, the country’s minister of research and higher education, announced last week that she was shelving plans proposed last January to introduce a corporate model for universities, under which institutions would have full financial autonomy and would be overseen by boards empowered to appoint rectors (currently elected by staff and students), who would have responsibility for the long-term development of the institution.

Bjørn Stensaker, director of the Centre for Learning, Innovation and Academic Development at the University of Oslo, said that the proposals would have seen universities “organised like a private company” and that there were fears that such a model could have paved the way for the introduction of tuition fees.

Norway’s move bucks a trend that has seen several countries, including Denmark and Finland, transform public universities into self-governing institutions that are overseen by boards including external stakeholders and that enjoy greater financial autonomy.

Giosuè Baggio, professor of psycholinguistics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, added that academics were concerned by developments in the Netherlands, where the granting of greater financial flexibility had allowed universities to take out loans, leading to high levels of debt at some institutions.

The shelved plans constituted the second attempt to introduce a corporate governance model for higher education in Norway. The first was in 2003, but the idea was abandoned after huge protests from academics outside parliament.

Malcolm Langford, professor of public law at Oslo, said he believed that a campaign from academics and students, including a petition with 3,500 signatures from scholars, was the “dominant reason” why the proposal was dropped this time around too, particularly given that the Liberal party – which is part of the coalition government – draws heavily on support and votes from these groups.

“I think there was a worry that, if they didn’t listen to the voices of staff and students, they could suffer the same fate as the Liberal Democrats [in the UK],” he said.

Professor Langford added that Norway benefited from having been in a position to “learn from other [countries’] experiences and then have a real debate over whether we wanted that experience or not”.

The fact that Norway’s higher education sector had previously been successful in campaigning against the policy and therefore had a “model for mobilisation” was another factor in defeating the proposals, he added.

However, Professor Baggio cautioned academics against celebrating too soon.

“Even if a corporate model is never adopted in Norway, the ministry and some high officials in the largest universities seem to want to grant greater financial flexibility to universities anyway,” he said.

A report from a working group that was established by the government to look into the corporate model “does not say that we do not want greater flexibility or that that is dangerous but that that can be done within the current framework”, he said.


Print headline: ‘Corporate’ universities on ice

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Reader's comments (1)

Good for Norway. The managerialism of UK academia has definitely NOT helped staff and students. It has just produced a whole class of middle managers, grubbing VCs, and bureaucrats that are completely divorced from the real workings of front line teaching and research staff.