Knowledge Exchange on Knowledge Reforms in the Nordic Region

How does international competition affect the Nordic institutions of knowledge? Are these institutions becoming more different or more similar? How do we safeguard a diversity of knowledge and stimulate towards high quality – on our own countries’ terms? These were some of the themes of a seminar on the management of higher education and research in the Nordic countries, which was held in Oslo in April 2008.
 Knowledge Exchange on Knowledge Reforms in the Nordic Region
The seminar will provide the basis for an anthology on higher education to be published later in 2008, with support from HØGUT, the Nordic committee for higher education.

Quality and free choice
Rector Jarle Aarbakke, chairman of the Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions (UHR), welcomed delegates on behalf of UHR and the Nordic Council of Ministers and stressed that quality is and must continue to be the ultimate aim of any changes to the institutions of knowledge. Aarbakke further stressed that in his opinion it must be a fundamental principle of any future amalgamation that it must be voluntary.

The Norwegian Minister of Research and Higher Education, Tora Aasland, indicated that Norway has a lower level of both PhD positions per capita and total R&D investment than its neighbouring countries. She pointed out at the same time that there are significant differences between the various countries. The goals for future work, according to Aasland, are to strengthen education in the professions, safeguard the breadth and the cutting edge of research centres and maintain the principle of equal entitlement to higher education.

Tougher Competition Demands New Management Structures
Swedish University Chancellor Anders Flodstrøm opened his address by showing that Europe has 2,000 research universities, as against the USA’s 200 and China’s 100. He said that to compete in Europe and globally a university must be strong. He went on to present financing and the relationship between autonomy and national management as two particularly important areas. Flodstrøm believed that, to begin with, one should consider whether the public R&D investment in Sweden should not exceed the OECD goal of 1%, where the basis/project share might be 50/50. He went on to point out the gradual shift from a close relationship between authorities and institutions through participatory management to increased freedom of contracts. It would now be wrong to base ourselves on management models which applied over a hundred years ago, he concluded, with a clear reference to the Humboldt ideal of knowledge.

The Position of the Universities in Society
In Denmark the proposals of the Globalisation Council, chaired by the prime minister, led to great changes to the universities, including a new law on greater external participation, that the institutions should be self-owned and an approximate halving of the number of universities and research institutions through amalgamations. The Rector of the University of Southern Denmark and chairman of the Danish collegium of rectors, Jens Oddershede, emphasised the universities’ increasingly important position in society as the reason for change. The need to adapt to the demands which society – both nationally and internationally – makes of the education and research sector will require consistent and professional leadership, as well as the ability to make both internal and external decisions.

Concentration and Focus in Finland
Peter Maassen, a University of Oslo professor with a wide and substantial experience of international knowledge policy, presented the most recent changes in Finland. The Finnish authorities have been working hard at stimulating the merging of centres of excellence and the concentration of research units. Based on a minimum number of students (3,000 for the universities and 2,500 for polytechnics) the authorities have set in motion a number of merger processes: the creation of an Innovation University will begin in 2010, in Turku they begin in 2010 and in East Finland also in 2010; there are also plans to create an Art University, which would gather together all art education in the longer term. And with the merger processes comes money, Maassen pointed out. Finland currently has 29 polytechnics (university colleges) and 20 universities. By 2020 they aim to have, at most, 18 university colleges and 15 universities.

In the debate which followed, the Norwegian minister’s parliamentary secretary, Jens Revold, said that he had long been seeking more information about processes being implemented in neighbouring countries.

The seminar was held under the auspices of Norden i Fokus and the Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions.