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How can we meet the rapid growth in internationalisation at Norwegian universities?

There have been heated exchanges on Twitter and in Khrono about last autumn’s debate on internationalisation. This recently went "live" in Stavanger. Much of the debate called on academics to intervene in order to safeguard international employees, Norwegian academic terminology and our own knowledge bank.

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Paneldeltakarar på scena
Tom Hetland chaired the debate at Påfyll in Stavanger with Cecilie Hellestveit, Rune Todnem By, Ulrich Dettweiler, Ingrid Reymert and Klaus Mohn.

During the last few years there has been an increase in the number of international employees at Norwegian universities. There are big differences between one subject and the next and the greatest increases have occurred among PhD and post-doctoral fellows.

Figures from the UiS show that the number of international employees has increased from 18 to 27 per cent over five years. In other words, over the space of just a few years, the number of international employees at the university has doubled, from 300 to almost 600.

During the debate, entitled The Internationalisation of Norwegian Academia – where do we go next?, which was chaired by Tom Hetland, UiS Rector Klaus Mohn met Cecile Hellestveit, a researchers at the Norwegian Academy of International Law, who had pointed out during the early autumn that internationalisation does not just have a positive impact in a small country such as Norway.

The panel also included Ingvild Reymert from the Norwegian Institute for Social Research and UiS researchers Rune Todnem By and Ulrich Dettweiler, who both possess experience from other countries and universities, with the latter actually hailing from Germany.

Here you can see the debate that was organised by the UiS, Kåkå and Khrono and streamed at Påfyll.

A warning

"I would like to provide a timely warning so that we can adjust our course before it’s too late,” explained Ms. Hellestveit.

In December 2021 she was nominated by Khrono as Academic Name of the Year after she raised critical questions about internationalisation. This provoked a number of international and Norwegian researchers.

Her main point was that Norway is a small country that has a small language culture.

"We manage our country in a different way to other, larger countries. We also need academia to serve as a knowledge bank for Norwegian society, especially in academic circles such as the social sciences and humanities,” she said. 

Norwegians and foreigners have the same outreach

One of Ms. Hellestveit’s earlier statements was that international researchers conduct less research about Norwegian conditions and are less involved in the supervision of such, and that they do not present their research to the Norwegian people to the same extent as Norwegian researchers.

Ingvild Reymert, a social scientist, maintained that this was not true. Her research shows that there are big differences between one field of study and the next and that the most active communicators are found among social scientists and humanists. She referred to a study conducted in 2013 that shows that there is little difference between Norwegian and international researchers in respect of communicating research.

Ms. Hellestveit thanked her for these basic facts, but said that she needed to clarify what her criticism related to. She believes that there is a risk that the Norwegian system would be impoverished if international researchers were allowed to dominate too much, especially in respect of social sciences and humanities subjects. Her main point is that the function of Norwegian academia is different to that which applies in Germany, France and Britain.

 "Norwegian academics educate our statesmen and we are starting to see a drop in expertise in some areas. For example, internationalisation is partly responsible for the fact that we are not so strong in the field of international law. Norwegian international law must be administered by Norway’s academic community.”

Ms. Hellestveit pointed out that when academics are steered towards a global knowledge bank, this is to the detriment of local banks.

"We are a very rich country. We can afford to engage in a lot more knowledge generation. Bring in top researchers. Create international research communities. But we cannot allow that to be at the expense of a knowledge bank about Norwegian society.

Must adjust our course

Klaus Mohn, on the other hand, stated that internationalisation is not an end in itself, but something that we do in order to improve the quality of everything that we do. According to the Rector, the UiS’s employees have given the university a considerable boost.

"All in all, I consider internationalisation to be an advantage. However, if we were to see that internationalisation was having the opposite effect and not making us better, then we would have to stop and adjust our course.”   

He pointed out that internationalisation has taken place very rapidly at the UiS and that we have not managed to take in what it involves, neither as regards operation of the organisation nor in respect of how we should deal with recruitment and ensure that the university’s employees become well integrated in their working environments and in society.

“We need to deal with this. We need to make some adjustments. We need to think about the way forwards.”

Must learn Norwegian

Professor Mohn made no secret about the fact that one volatile issue concerns whether or not international teachers should learn Norwegian.

"We’re talking about language here, not about where people come from.”

Ulrich Dettweiler also pointed out that the Norwegian language is an important key and that it is not easy for employees to learn Norwegian when Norwegian courses are held during the evenings and they are otherwise snowed under with requests for teaching, research, supervision and administration. He believes that more measures are required in order to improve teaching Norwegian to international researchers.

Professor Dettweiler said that he has experienced language being used as an instrument of power. When someone speaks rapidly in a dialect, it is difficult to understand them.

“Minutes written in Nynorsk in a group where only one of the members speaks Norwegian. What’s that all about?” Nynorsk fetishism,” was the view put forward by Professor Dettweiler.

Providing internationals with good care

Panelist Rune Todnem By is one of those who have criticised Ms. Hellestveit in his contribution in Khrono, especially because her statements have hurt many international colleagues who have been provoked and felt directly affected by her criticism. He maintained that someone should apologise – including Rector Klaus Mohn, who supported Ms. Hellestveit’s nomination as Academic Name of the Year.

Todnem By's main concern is that Norwegian academics are not looking after the university’s international employees very well. Despite the fact that there are many of them – 30 per cent of the UiS’s employees are foreigners – they are not particularly well represented higher up in the system above professors and in management.

Professor Mohn, who has acknowledged that the UiS is experiencing growth difficulties and will be ensuring that internationalisation will be addressed better in the future, refuses to enter into a debate where you end up in a ditch.

"Displaying empathy would be a sort of dead end. It wouldn’t feel good. I’m in favour of having a debate culture in which we are generous with each other and concentrate on the bigger questions,” said Professor Mohn, who also said that he thought that things would change and that international employees would be better represented in professorships and in management in 10 to 20 years’ time.

No English at Bachelor's level

Professor Mohn has on several occasions maintained that internationalisation makes the UiS a better university, but he points out that we cannot move towards having purely English-speaking academics.

"We need to have two thoughts in our heads at the same time. For example, we are responsible as a sector for taking care of Norwegian academic terminology. As a university we need to ensure that we balance the various interests that we are supposed to manage,” says Professor Mohn..

Ingrid Reymert emphasised the same thing when she advocated that the language of tuition should not just be English. That would be to the detriment of equal rights in respect of education,” she said.

"We need to make sure that our higher education system is open to Norwegian students who are not very good in English. We need to think about the weaker students and ensure that higher education does not become a barrier to many students for language reasons. Consequently I believe that we need to be careful about teaching in English at Bacherlor’s level, for example.”

Norway does not have an elite culture

Todnem By asked why Norway is unable to recruit Norwegians to academia. Why are they not being appointed?

Ms. Hellestveit provided part of the answer. Competition from abroad is particularly hard and the Norwegian educational system is not able to develop along the same lines. She therefore warned about something that she believes is a worrying development and which partly relates to internationalisation. She pointed out that Europe has less advantageous conditions for PhD and post-doctoral fellows and that when they become professors they acquire particularly good framework conditions.

"Unlike Germany, France and Britain, Norway does not have an elite culture. This is one of Norway’s qualities,” she said, adding those who possess knowledge in Norway are close to the people. Most people can talk to our knowledge generators. If we import expertise it is possible that we will be heading towards an elite culture with increasing internationalisation.”

"We could say that yes, we would like elitists. But what would we be losing? Norwegian society ranks highly in terms of democracy and freedom of speech. This is worth protecting and preserving. Academia has a key role in this respect,” maintained Ms. Hellestveit as she referred to the fact that the Maths taught in Class 5 in Germany is the same as the Maths taught in Class 9 in Norway.”

"There is no one here who thinks that we should not have the world’s leading researchers. But the question is: what frameworks should we have and how should Norway’s knowledge system meet this? In Norway we do not write CVs for children from the age of four. If we want that sort of society then we need to think about the consequences of such,” says Ms. Hellestveit.

Read also the review published by Khrono: Hellestveit met Mohn and his fiercest critics and People who are paid to be in the knowledge industry have a responsibility to take a blow

Text: Karen Anne Okstad