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The Interplay Between Higher Education and Regional Policy: Perspectives from Norway

By Lise Smed Olsen

Norwegian legislation for higher education institutions was amended in 2002 to encourage better coordination of universities and university colleges with the needs of society and the economy. Since then, a number of initiatives have been introduced to provide incentives for higher education institutions to undertake this responsibility, as well as to ensure a high academic standard of education and research.

Among Nordic countries, Norway provides an interesting example of the combination of traditional education and research policies and regional policy measures. One explanation for this combination may be the inherent role of regional policy in Norway. This article encompasses the perspectives both of higher education and research policy and of regional policy.

The structure of higher education in Norway

Norway is a country with an elongated shape and large geographical distances. In line with traditionally strong regional policy, the current government has the objective of ensuring that each citizen in the country has real freedom in deciding where to live. This objective is reflected in higher education policy, as Kyrre Lekve, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Education and Research, states:

"A key objective of the higher education policy is to ensure the supply of a skilled workforce to provide staff for welfare state professions in all parts of the country, including preschool and other teachers, and those in the business community."

Today, Norway has eight universities, six specialised universities and 25 university colleges. The higher education sector has a decentralised structure. Nursing and teaching courses in particular are offered at many higher education institutions. In Norway, there is a focus on research at university colleges to increase the quality of education and professional practice. This is a valid aim, not least in regard to schooling and health care.

The decentralised nature of higher education institutions was addressed in 2006 with the establishment of the Government Commission for Higher Education, known as the Stjernø Commission, to evaluate the structure of the higher education sector in Norway. The Commission delivered its report in 2008. Lekve elaborates:

"The Stjernø Commission indicated that the balance between availability and the need for concentration of research environments is a central issue for further development. The Commission put forward a radical proposal to merge the existing universities and university colleges into 8–10 regional universities. The subsequent hearing of the proposal showed broad agreement on the main features of the Stjernø Commission's analysis of the situation, but there was great opposition to the proposed measures."

Given the overwhelming opposition to the proposal, the Ministry of Education and Research chose not to follow up on the Commission's recommendations for structural changes. Instead, the Ministry established the Policy for Cooperation, Division of Labour and Academic Concentration, which has resulted in a number of initiatives for cooperation between higher education institutions in the form of scientific research cooperation or mergers. Importantly, such cooperation initiatives take place on a voluntary basis.

Establishing councils for cooperation with the business community

A recent initiative by the Ministry of Education and Research was the requirement for all higher education institutions to establish 'Councils for Cooperation with the Business Community' by 1 July 2011. Lekve explains the background for this initiative:

"We see that university colleges in different parts of the country have become increasingly similar in their education programmes, and that the trend towards increased coverage of smaller education institutions may occur at the expense of quality, and thereby their ability to fulfil their function as knowledge providers to local business communities."

The decision to form councils for cooperation was made to provide higher education institutions with greater incentives to work with local business communities. The higher education institutions are to develop new strategies in cooperation with their councils, which include labour market representatives, students and other stakeholders. Lekve emphasises that the most important role of the councils in cooperation is to develop education and training programmes that meet the needs of the local labour market.

National measures support cooperation on research and innovation

The Norwegian government has also taken measures to develop a support structure for research and development cooperation between higher education institutions and the business community. SIVA - The Industrial Development Corporation of Norway - was founded in 1968 as a governmental corporation developing strong regional and local industrial clusters through ownership of infrastructure, investment and knowledge networks as well as innovation centres. Innovation Norway is the main institution through which regional development funds are channelled. Among other areas of responsibility, it offers services to support innovation in the business community nationwide, for example through the tax incentive scheme SkatteFUNN.

The Research Council of Norway is responsible for funding both basic and applied research. Examples of its measures to support the development of a strong research environment are the Centres of Excellence and the Centres for Environment-friendly Energy Research. Further, the Research Council of Norway has introduced the Regional Research Fund to support regional research, innovation and development. In a Nordic context, this is a unique approach, as it involves national research funds allocated to the regional level. The Norwegian counties have been grouped on a voluntary basis into seven regions to administer the fund.

These three organisations are responsible for managing a number of national programmes: the VRI programme, designed to support research and innovation at the regional level; the Norwegian Centres of Expertise scheme, concerned with establishing a strong research environment; and the Arena Programme, focused on cluster development. An interesting observation is that these programmes are run in collaboration between three national agencies and are funded by two ministries representing different policy areas: the Ministry of Education and Research and the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development.

Reflections from a regional policy perspective

While acknowledging the 'grand measures' - compared with other countries - implemented in Norway, Jan Sandal, former Director General of the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, emphasises that this point is also subject to criticism. As in many other countries, there is discussion about creating an appropriate balance between basic research and applied research relating directly to the 'third task' of higher education institutions - to respond to the needs of society and the economy. Sandal notes:

"The opposition criticises the government's budgets, and states there is not enough money for basic research and non-programme research. They argue that research should not always be micromanaged and that here it is too closely tied to programmes. This issue, as well as limited budgets for basic research, has been discussed in the national media."

Sandal stresses that there is an evident tension between strong academic tradition and regional policy. He observes that from the perspective of regional policy, too little consideration is shown for regional concerns in higher education policy, while universities believe regional policy already has too much influence. Despite this tension, Sandal believes it is not impossible to find solutions to reconcile the two points of view:

"It is a matter of finding good compromises that lead to win–win situations. This should not be impossible to achieve because research, business development and societal development are already highly integrated. If we want continued balanced development in Norway we need to find solutions, and the entire country needs to participate in the modernisation process."

The issue of balancing the broad range of higher education opportunities in all parts of the country and the concentration of high-quality research environments is an ongoing concern, but Sandal believes that regional policy will continue to be an integral part of higher education policy:

"The regional policy dimension is strong in Norway, and it will always be there; it is mainly a matter of discussing which form it will take."

White Paper on research

The Ministry of Education and Research is currently preparing a new White Paper (Stortingsmelding) on research. It is in the initial stages, but Lekve stresses that the so-called 'knowledge triangle' will be a central element of the White Paper. The knowledge triangle is a concept that refers to the interplay between education, research and innovation in higher education policy, and thereby involves approaches for addressing the 'third task' of higher education institutions. The concept is the subject of policy discussions about higher education in other Nordic countries.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 2, 2012