Structural Elements in the Quality Reform
The Historical Development in the Norwegian Higher Education Sector
Higher education has traditionally not been a subject to many heated debates in Norwegian political domain. Historically, large reforms of higher education have been formulated by and embedded in official commissions with members from public administration, politicians and the institutions themselves (Bleiklie, 1996a). These commissions are considered highly prestigious in Norway and usually not only have a wide representation from relevant organizations but also a number of experts on the field (Tellmann, 2016). The commissions provide a diagnosis of the sector, highlight issues to be solved, and suggest possible solutions. This is representative of a consensus-oriented approach to policymaking, characteristic of the Nordic model in higher education policy (Christensen et al., 2014, p. 36). An important element of this approach is the extensive use of public expert commissions who provide advice to the policymaking processes.
Norwegian higher education has in recent decades, undergone dramatic change processes. Structural changes in the system prior to the Quality Reform have a long and important historical development process. Already in 1965, a Royal Commission was set up to assess various aspects of the Norwegian higher education system (Kyvik, 2002). During the 1980s, elements of neoliberalism and new public management were introduced. In 1988, a major reform was launched, prompting among other things large scale mergers of higher education institutions (Bleiklie, 1996b; Bleiklie et al., 2000; Fr0lich, 2005). Characteristic of the Norwegian tradition, this reform was also underpinned by a Commission, led by Gudmund Hernes. As a result of this reform, 98 vocationally oriented colleges were merged into 26 new state colleges in 1994 (Kyvik, 2002; Kyvik and Stensaker, 2013; Norgard and Skodvin, 2002). The following period was marked with academic drift, in particular in some segments ofthe system, as explained by one of our respondents:
the colleges got some doctoral degrees approved, so there was a sense of academic drift. During the university college reform, the “district colleges” had viewed themselves in the university class. Obtaining research time and resources was also part of this. Some of the other colleges thought also this was very unfair. (INT)
Among these district colleges, it was particularly the institutions in Stavanger and Agder who had put some effort into becoming a university. In Stavanger, there had been interest in establishing a university already in the 1960s, but as a result of the Royal Commission decision, the region received a district college instead. At the time, local authorities had already assigned a property that was called ‘university area’, marking the plans to build a campus for the university in the region. The aims to become a university were again emphasized in the 1980s, but then the process was effectively stopped, as Hernes (the leader of the 1988 Commission) was strongly against this opportunity, precisely to avoid academic drift (INT). However, colleges and universities obtained the same categories for academic work titles and career trajectories and were regulated by the same act (Dimmen and Kyvik, 1998). This is by some argued to be the first step towards erasing some of the strict sectoral dividing lines between university and university college sector, and in fact facilitating academic drift.
This can be seen as an illustration that despite attempts to constrain the development, academic drift has been taking place in the college sector. When looking back historically, one can argue that there is a gradual longtime development in this respect. This has resulted in ‘change being the normality’ in Norwegian higher education, as described by one of the respondents. The process has been gradual, with continuous development over time, at times being ‘nudged’ forward (Gornitzka and Maassen, 2014). Thus, when zooming out and examining these long-term developments over time, one can see incremental changes over time as a way to explain the trajectory of reforms. One could also argue that the 1994 merger process can be seen as a key turning point. There have been powerful regional interests aiming to lobby for the establishment of new universities, but up until the Quality Reform was on the agenda they had not had success with their ambitions.