The ‘New University’ protests in Amsterdam, with similar initiatives in the UK, Canada, and Denmark have awakened students and scholars to the increasingly neoliberal management of academic institutions. While these types of changes have been implemented more gradually in Norway, discussions around increased commodification of knowledge and weakening university democracy are nevertheless on the rise.
In our case, at NTNU, such discussions have surfaced in connection with institutional and departmental mergers being pushed by university management. These top-down restructuring projects have been criticized for being carried out in the absence of proper justifications and for the severely flawed manner in which employee consultations are being conducted. We are part of an increasingly large group of employees at NTNU to have publically criticized these processes. Arguing against a current proposal to merge several departments at the Faculty of Social Sciences, we stated in the university newspaper that:
“This lack of foundation for the proposed changes is quite revealing, making visible how the process at SVT (Faculty of Social Sciences and Technology Management) represents just one small aspect of a national and university-wide top-down project of centralisation and fusion of institutions, where vague notions of “robustness”, “competitiveness” and “international standing” are constantly repeated, but never defined or made concrete as achievable goals.”
While the institutional and departmental mergers have triggered this debate at NTNU, these processes reflect only a small part of wider policy changes at the national level, where standardised quantitative measures of quality in education and research are increasingly emphasised and adopted. Research quality, for instance, is to a large extent assessed by counting ‘publication points’ and the amount of external research funding that departments and individuals are able to secure.
As argued by sociology professor, Aksel Tjora:
“NTNU have hired a two-digit number of consultants centrally to provide administrative support in applying for EU funding rather than recruiting more scholars to strengthen the actual research. Management at several levels has become more concerned with bragging about secured external funding rather than good quality research. Standards for measuring quality have been completely confused with standards for measuring quantity, where the number of publications counts more than the content and significance of the research itself. It is the publication points that count and matter most, even if the publications themselves are pointless [author’s translation].”
Norwegian universities are increasingly accused of being run like businesses, disabling the capacity for independent, critical teaching and research. As argued recently by Professor Peter Sohlberg: “If you have to chase the money, it can severely affect progress in more basic fundamental research [author’s translation].”
The number of people becoming engaged in this debate has expanded. Employees at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, for instance, have argued that:
“Recent events indicate that we are at a crossroads with the Norwegian university sector and with NTNU. We can of course follow the rest of Europe into the fog of “robustness”, “excellence”, “administrative efficiency” and “fusions”. We are, however arguing that this is not the only possible way [author’s translation].”
The importance of these issues engaged a broad range of people in a recent debate between Aksel Tjora and NTNU rector, Gunnar Bovim, which was organized by the University Newspaper. Tjora attempted to expand the scope of the debate, arguing that:
“For me this debate is about values. It is about what kind of values our universities have as their basis. This is a big discussion, but it is this discussion that is taking place across large parts of Europe right now….. There is no one else in our society that will fight to limit the commercialization of our universities. It is therefore our responsibility to do so….. Do not let this debate be limited to questions about university structures and relocations. This has to be a debate about principles and values [author’s translation]”.
The debates currently happening at NTNU and the protests and discussions taking place in the Netherlands, Canada, UK, and Denmark have inspired us to establish this webpage – www.newuniversitynorway.org
The intention is to create a space for critical discussions about the future of our universities and what role they should play in society. The initiative forms part of an effort to reclaim influence in this debate, which has for too long been left to a small group made up of politicians and university management. We want to ask questions that are fundamental and have been too little discussed in recent years: What functions, for instance, should universities have in society? How best can research and education contribute to this? How do we define “quality” in research and education, and who should have the power to decide this? How should our universities be governed and managed?
We want to invite a broad spectrum of voices to contribute to a discussion on these and other crucial issues concerning our universities. We believe that these discussions can become a platform from which to develop new proposals and bring together a community of critical and progressive voices to advocate for a ‘New University Norway’.