Tying funding to outreach ‘fails to help freedom of expression’

Efforts to encourage more academics into public debates should forget indicators and focus on training and support, Norwegian rectors say

April 1, 2022
Source: iStock

Tying outreach activities to funding would fail to embolden Norwegian academics to speak up on difficult issues, according to sector leaders, who said the idea would reverse recent moves away from governance by metrics.

The polarisation of political debate and targeting of academics who offer unpopular opinions has drawn the attention of governments worldwide since the pandemic, with some considering changing laws to protect intellectual input on national discussions. 

In Norway, a committee appointed by government to explore academic freedom of expression said a dissemination indicator should be added to the formula that decides university funding.

To be counted, academics’ outreach activities would have to relate to their field and be findable and easy to register. Blogposts, media interviews and artworks should all be counted, the committee said, and to keep things simple, there should be equal weighting regardless of format or quality.

The suggestion comes at an odd time, as Norway’s Ministry of Education and Research explores a shift away from national targets towards institution-specific development agreements for all 21 state universities and colleges, based around goals agreed with institutions.

“It should not be necessary to put incentives on every important task,” said Sunniva Whittaker, the rector of the University of Agder and chair of the rectors’ conference Universities Norway. “It’s better not to have a performance indicator; that is not the right way to go,” agreed Svein Stølen, rector of the University of Oslo and deputy chair of the conference.

“Courage is the question here today and then I don’t think this is really the right incentive,” he said. “We really need to work on culture: encourage people to take part in debates, train them, help them [and] accept that also our professors have views that we don’t necessarily like personally.” 

The committee, which included university heads and the chief executive of the Nobel Foundation, acknowledged that cultural change was needed to make academics more confident contributors, and that this would require advocacy and training from their institutions. It said that Norway’s Universities and University Colleges Act should be amended to include a clause making institutions responsible for providing “adequate training and prerequisites for the exercise of academic freedom, including academic freedom of expression”.

“Compared to most other countries, Norway has a solid foundation in terms of academic freedom of expression, but this does not mean that there are no challenges in our country,” said Professor Whittaker. “We have seen challenges during the pandemic, for example, where researchers have been exposed to hateful and threatening behaviour and statements in social media.”

The committee said academics of all levels could benefit from training in good debate culture and working with the media, while special attention was needed for international staff who may come from countries without free expression or who may lack the Norwegian language skills to join discussions.

“We should put more emphasis on that in the years to come because I think the debates are becoming more and more polarised,” said Professor Stølen, referring to training. 

The Norwegian minister of research and higher education, Ola Borten Moe, said each institution should use the committee’s report as a “starting point” to build a “good culture of expression”.

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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