Karin Widerberg: In the name of Welfare – Mainstreaming the Norwegian Academy

Karin Widerberg: In the name of Welfare – Mainstreaming the Norwegian Academy
Karin Widerberg, University of Oslo

I used to be quite proud to be a Scandinavian academic. Educated in Sweden and working in Norway but collaborating internationally had not only made me aware of but also appreciative of the welfare model of Scandinavian universities. Free public education (at all levels), equality regarding salaries and work conditions among the academic staff and a social mission as the goal of research – could one wish for a better platform for a social scientist? When, in addition, our knowledge is not only publicly appreciated but also made use of politically in policymaking for the welfare-state, surely there cannot be much to complain about.  Yet it is precisely this very close relationship between research and politics in Norway – as an illustrative example – where intellectuals are positioned to be politically accountable, that poses a problem. Government in the name of “internationalization”, Europeization, neo-liberalism and well-fare bureaucracy, shakes the foundations of the university as an academic institution. We are, I would claim, more caught up in ruling relations – structurally and culturally – than intellectuals working in less egalitarian or democratic cultures. How else can one explain the rapid and profound changes within higher education and research, undertaken to mainstream and control not only the amount but also the content of both research and teaching? Just as important, how can one explain the lack of resistance and critique of this development!? Let me give a few examples of the areas and items of change in Norway over the last decade.

  • The Bologna agreement on the structure of higher education (3 years [Bachelor] + 2 years [Master] + 3 years [PhD] in Norway, portrayed as a ”Quality reform” (the implementation of the Bologna agreement added with a whole series of different changes related to teaching and examination). It is often considered a joke that Norway, not a member of the European Union, was the first to accept and implement the Bologna agreement, in 2003
  • A new budget system accompanied the recent university reform. Now, the distribution of money/grants to a department is not only related to the number of students registered but also how many exams they take and how much the department’s staff publishes. Finally, overhead money brought in through external research projects, that is, productivity – students, research projects and publications – are the incentives and foundation for funding university departments.
  •  Faculty salaries were set “free” for negotiation, less than two decades ago. Previously, the rule was that everyone with the same position was paid the same salary. Increase in salary followed rules of seniority. Today, one is expected to negotiate one’s salary more or less annually, and the publication rate is a factor used in the negotiations. That is, economic equality is now set aside and productivity is used as an incentive.
  • A new system for registration of teaching duties, an account of hours, titled the ”time-bank” . Each semester one has to fill out a form where all tasks related to teaching and supervision are given fixed “prices”, leaving an employee in debt or in surplus regarding working-hours. That is, only certain tasks are made visible and those are then evaluated not on an actual but on a normative basis.
  • A new system for registration of research publication (”Frida”). Each staff member is now requested to register everything she publishes. The publication rate of its faculty staff is then annually reported and evaluated.
  • A new system for rating research publications (”tellekantreformen”). Internationally inspired, the Ministry of Education developed a model (known as “The Norwegian Model”) and now exported to the other Scandinavian countries. Articles in International journals and publications using a peer review system receive higher credits than those in national journals – with or without a peer review system. This hereby introduced a dilemma for academics from the social sciences and the humanities who take their goal of social mission and research dissemination to the public seriously. Also the issue was raised of what will happen to the Norwegian (research) language and public debate in Norway if English becomes the main language in higher education and research.
  • A new policy for strategic research activity. In an effort to make university research more competitive and productive it has been decided that its core areas of research, on all levels, are to be defined. Each faculty is to decide how many areas each department is allowed to select. It is meant to have consequences for the allocation of money at each level and, in the long run, influence which research areas will survive or thrive. When, in addition, the Norwegian Research Council – the national body responsible for allocating research resources, and accordingly decisive for the university’s research policy – has made a similar change regarding research funding, the door is being closed for “free research”.
  • A new policy for establishing strategic teaching activities, with a “course portfolio” connected to the core areas within research. It represents a  strategy similar to the one regarding research, but for teaching.

None of these changes are of course unique to Norway, quite the opposite. Since the purpose is to modernize the university, ideas and models have been imported from other countries as well as from other branches of the state. What is unique to Norway, I would argue, is its very pervasiveness – its rapid, smooth and successful implementation. And let me also stress that, in themselves, none of these reforms are “bad”. Quite the opposite. There are good reasons and good intentions behind every single one of them. Taken together, however, I would argue that they assume a new quality, changing both academic activities and academic culture. Registration and rating of research and teaching affect not only the tasks you do and how you do them, but your whole state of mind. You become one who calculates. And if the tradition for counting and documenting is based on the individual as a unit, individualization will increase at the expense of a more collective working culture. When this is combined and synchronized with the policy for the mainstreaming of research in the form of strategic plans at the Research Council as well as at the university, this might prove to be the death knell for critical thinking.

For us, as sociologists, it is accordingly a most urgent task to investigate, in depth, all the instruments used to shape the reformation of the University. Here, the specific role of the ruling relations in the welfare state and the role given to us as social scientists in this reform process, need special attention. A worthy task for a critical sociology.

Universities in Crisis, 17/04/10