Fighting Fog – The Case of Creeping Neoliberalism and Weakening University Democracy in Norway

The ‘New University’ protests in Amsterdam, with similar initiatives in the UK and Canada, have awakened students and scholars to the increasingly neoliberal management of academic institutions. This has also been the case at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, where employees have been mobilizing to challenge a top-down process of institutional and departmental mergers. Concrete processes, such as mergers, selling-off of university property, or major changes to fundamental policy, present opportunities to focus resistance and mobilization. Much more challenging in the Norwegian context are the periods in between, where changes are small and neoliberal processes are concealed in a fog of vague ‘common sense’ narratives of seemingly harmless improvements to administrative effectiveness. We therefore ask: how can we mobilize against small and gradual changes that when aggregated nevertheless add up to significant centralization, bureaucratization, and financialization of our universities? 

In discussing ways to ‘fight fog’ we take inspiration from Marcuse’s call to ‘Expose, Propose, and Politicize’ (Marcuse 2009). We start by presenting a brief account of how governance and participation structures at Norwegian universities have developed from the early 1990s. The overview shows how gradual changes have centralized decision-making, increased bureaucratic professionalization, and financialized the measurement of ‘quality’ in teaching and research. Most of these changes have been implemented largely unopposed by university employees and students. We discuss two major reasons for this passivity: first, the difficulty of identifying the political and ideological content within foggy processes presented as technical changes to improve public management; and second, the feeling of powerlessness in the face of changes that are presented as inevitable, replacing potential resistance with strategic positioning in relation to these processes. We illustrate these points by elaborating on a current process of mergers at both institution and department levels at our university, before ending the essay with a discussion of the potential for using momenta from concrete processes to keep alive a critical discussion during periods where there are no tangible measures to oppose.

Lifting the fog: a brief history of governance and participation structures for Norwegian universities

Norwegian universities have since the 1970s employed a form of representative democracy extending down to the departmental level, where employees and students elect university, faculty, and department heads and board members. However, the systems of governance and participation have, since the early 1990s, undergone stepwise changes towards more top-down governance with increasingly cosmetic processes of employee participation. The first set of changes was implemented in 1995 through a law that made way for an appointed administrative director who was given responsibility for day-to-day management of administrative and economic matters. These measures distinguished formally between the board, chaired by an elected rector, and the daily management of the university. Influence from students and employees continued to be ensured as they held the majority of the seats on the university board still chaired by an elected rector. The most significant change proposed by the committee, however, was the appointment of external representatives to the boards at all organizational levels. This was based on the argument that these appointments would ensure that universities received sufficient input from external actors such as the business community, labour organizations, and civil society (NOU 1993).

In 2000, a new government-initiated committee proposed that the university board should be composed of a majority of external representatives to ensure that the board had sufficient experience and expertise (NOU 2000). The reasoning for including external board members thus changed from focusing on the role of the university in relation to the wider society to it becoming a matter of professionalization and management expertise. It was also argued that the system of electing rectors should be abandoned in favour of direct appointments by the board from a list of applicants. These recommendations were by and large introduced through legal reform, which still allowed for elected rectors, but left this to the discretion of university boards (Lovdata 2005). The University of Oslo and University of Bergen have maintained the practice of electing their rectors, while NTNU decided to appoint rectors. Under the new model the role of the rector changed from chairing the board to being the board secretary. The rector also took over the daily management responsibilities that were previously held by the administrative director. An external representative, appointed by the Ministry of Education, was installed as board chair. Similarly the seven faculty deans were now appointed by the NTNU board. Department and faculty boards were also replaced by advisory bodies, thus losing their decision-making power (Hope et al. 2008:7). The latest move to centralize governance structures took place in 2013 with the decision to abandon elected departmental heads in favour of appointments made by the faculty. 

To sum up, the governance discourse in the Norwegian higher education sector since the 1990s has slowly shifted from emphasizing societal priorities and participatory governance towards notions of professionalization and the benefits of centralized top-down management structures. Strategic discussions, formal decision-making, and economic and administrative control now lie in the hands of a centralized management and decisions are made through top-down processes, leaving employees and students with little formal power to influence decisions, or set agendas. We argue that these incremental, but in sum significant, changes facilitate the increasing bureaucratization of university life and pave the way for the financialization of teaching and research experienced today.

The higher education sector in Norway is still predominantly funded and run by the state with free education for all students, reflecting the prevalent social democratic ethos in Norwegian society. Despite an underlying neoliberal reform agenda, consecutive governments have therefore tuned their political rhetoric to this context and proposals for gradual change have been based on more subtle reform narratives. However, the current government, which came to power in October 2013, has initiated a series of large public sector restructuring processes, which have targeted amongst others the higher education sector. The centrally-initiated reforms are legitimized by vague government narratives related to ‘robustness’ and financial competitiveness, where quality is seen to correspond with size and agglomeration of resources. Responding to this policy, NTNU very recently decided to merge with three university colleges from different parts of Norway, a move that will make NTNU the largest. university in the country.

Part of the university sector restructuring is an increased emphasis on quantitative measures for quality in education and research. Standards in research, for instance, are assessed by counting ‘publication points’ and by the amount of external research funding – particularly from the European Union – that departments and individuals are able to secure. For teaching, credits obtained by students and the number of completed PhD theses have become the key measurements of performance, representing a step towards the commodification of knowledge. Together with the increased centralization of decision-making, this is a worrying development, as it severely disables the capacity for independent critical teaching and research.

Cosmetic participation and manufacturing consent

While this brief historical overview of governance and participation structures for the Norwegian universities illustrates how significant changes are taking place incrementally, it is also relevant to discuss this from the vantage point of students and employees, who have remained relatively silent in these processes.

We highlight three factors we believe are of relevance and illustrate them through the case of a recently initiated department merger at our faculty. The first is the difficulty of identifying political and ideological content in what is presented by the management as technical adjustments to improve performance. The second relates to how management makes use of employee and student participation as a tool to legitimize decisions that have already been made. The third point concerns the increasing depoliticization of student and employee representative bodies and the growing disconnection of their members from those they are supposed to represent. The combined result has been that many people feel disempowered and are increasingly reluctant to participate actively in processes and discussions influencing the direction of the university.[i]

In December 2013, the Faculty of Social Sciences and Technology Management, to which our Department belongs, initiated a process with the aim to merge several discipline-based departments into one large department of social sciences. It was argued that with increased size the department would become more ‘robust’ and be better able to contribute towards the university and government goals for higher education in Norway. The proposal was not based on any analysis or evaluation of the current situation. Instead, the problematic government narratives around ‘robustness’, meaning increased size and adherence to artificially-created financial constraints, was simply presented as ‘common sense’. When the faculty management finally invited employees to participate in the process, the focus had already shifted to how a merger should be carried out. Whether such changes would be beneficial, as well as discussions of alternative organizational approaches, were kept off the agenda (Jones 2015).

After an initial orientation meeting led by the faculty, a round of ‘consultations’ was carried out at the departmental level. The consultations were set to take place within a very short time frame, which served to limit the scope of the discussions. At the same time, carrying out individual consultations in each department served to isolate employees from discussions being carried out at other departments. Informally, employees were also led to believe that the proposed changes were inevitable and that opposition to the planned restructuring would likely result in their department’s marginalization from the process, thus reducing their ability to shape the future of the faculty. These factors effectively limited debate and discussion on the fundamental basis and arguments for restructuring and led to a defeatist attitude amongst many employees. The problematic nature of the process came to a head some months later when the dean submitted the final proposal, which paid no attention to the views and input given by the employees during the consultations. 

Expose to propose: making visible the elephant in the room

Our mobilization against the proposed merger of departments started as an email exchange between the authors of this paper, where we expressed our concerns and frustration with the process both at the institution and department level. From there we moved to formulate a response to the faculty leadership, aiming to concretize some of the problems as we saw them. The response was mainly oriented around two issues. One was the lack of any convincing justification for the proposed changes, and the other was the inadequate scope of the consultations, where employees were asked to comment narrowly on a process of restructuring that had already been set in motion. In addition, the response was the first document made available on the merger in English, which allowed the significant portion of students and employees, who did not have sufficient command of Norwegian, to engage in the process.[ii] Our contribution sparked discussion at our department leading to calls for the process to be frozen. We further expressed our worry that a merging of three departments into one general department of social sciences would weaken the individual social science disciplines at a university that has historically, and increasingly, prioritized technical sciences at the cost of the humanities and social sciences. We summarized some of these points in a Letter to the Editor of the university newspaper (Jakobsen et al. 2015). In a second letter, we wrote:

“The proposed restructuring is indicative of a politics that seeks to limit the role of universities in society to the channeling of human capital investments into the economy, where “robustness” has come to mean size and commodification of knowledge, and where social sciences are considered unproductive, and out of place in a technical university” (Marsland et al. 2015).

Our response to the faculty leadership became the basis for a petition, which was passed to other departments at NTNU where employees had engaged in similar discussions. We also worked to mobilize representatives and discuss concrete responses in preparation for the upcoming meetings of the Department and Faculty Boards. After a response from the Dean (which confirmed the top-down governance structure of NTNU), we were informed that the process of merging had been put on hold (Reitan 2015). However, it was made clear that the discussion would be taken up again when the new faculty structure resulting from the fusion of our university with three university colleges was clarified.

The role of student representatives

Although a degree of political awareness amongst employees has been awoken, we have seen in the history of university democracy in Norway that this can easily evaporate. Further, while protests in Amsterdam were initiated and led by students, Norwegian students have engaged little in discussions about the role and future of the universities. In fact, student representatives have to a large extent voted with management in the NTNU board, most recently against the votes of the employee representatives over the fusing of NTNU and the three university colleges. While the student representatives later admitted that the process had been chaotic and pushed through on a tight timeline, they stood together with the university management in arguing that the decision had now been taken and that people should use their energies towards making sure that the merger was implemented in a satisfactory way (Hereide 2015). Very little discussion emerged regarding issues of the legitimacy of the student representatives, who were elected by a minute fraction of students, or how the representatives ignored the majority view expressed by students in their own round of consultations. In January 2015, for example, the student representatives in the NTNU board held an open meeting for the students, where they had a vote on the various alternatives. Of the sixty who turned up, only four voted for the large fusion (Esshali 2015). 

After the decision to fuse was made, the student representatives on the NTNU board were accused of being ‘ladder climbers’ sucking up to the leadership (Tjora 2015). The response from the student representatives was that “We are admittedly elected by the students, but it is not a direct democracy and every board member must take the decisions he or she thinks is right.” Further, that “as board representatives we should vote for what’s best for NTNU, not only the students” (Bakken 2015, own translation). Although honest, this emphasizes the need to question what being a representative actually entails and the legitimacy of elections where students vote for the student representatives on the NTNU board. As written by another student: “Politics become personal when two chosen candidates are more concerned with representing themselves and their own opinions – rather than representing the remaining students and providing support for the employees’ plea that professionalism rather than marketization should be the compass for the future NTNU” (Djupedal 2015, own translation)”. Through the debate that followed it became clear that the students have been struggling with many of the same challenges as university employees in responding to what is happening.

Imagining the ‘New University’

Concretizing some of our worries concerning the process helped if not to lift, then at least to shine some light into the fog. We received positive feedback from a number of employees both at our own and other departments and faculties, and critical pieces have been written in the newspapers by a variety of authors. Making visible how our process of departmental mergers formed part of a wider creeping neoliberalism supported our protest against what we saw as an unjustified and undemocratic process. More importantly, this momentum showed the potential development of a platform on which broader discussions could be fostered on how increasing centralization, bureaucratization, and commodification of knowledge are threatening the critical role of our universities in society.

We therefore propose that an important step towards politicizing the idea of a New University Norway is to create platforms where people are invited to reimagine the university, reflect upon its mandate and role in society, and engage in discussions on new governance structures. We need to move towards creating concrete alternatives based on ideological and normative ideals. Despite contextual differences, we can in this process learn from the experiences of the protests in Amsterdam and other places, both in terms of engaging students, organizing protests, and in building a critical knowledge base.

Expose to politicize: a way forward in the Norwegian context

The challenge in the Norwegian context is to know how and when to mobilize, since agendas are subtle and the commodification of knowledge, education and research is very gradual. However, the current government’s more belligerent approach of pushing multiple changes within a limited time-frame has made it easier to expose what has, in reality, been an ongoing process since the 1990s.

So how can we become more involved in setting agendas rather than simply being invited to respond to decisions? Students and employees in Amsterdam can be seen to have successfully mobilized on account of critical thinking.  While this is inspiring, it is difficult to imagine the level of protest we have seen in Amsterdam happening in the Norwegian context, as the changes in Norway are gradual and cloaked in ´common sense´ narratives. In addition, the disconnection between decision-makers and employees and students is not so dramatic as to make it glaringly apparent. While the university management at NTNU can be accused of being out of touch with its employees, we do not have university boards made up by the type of social elite described in the Dutch context, where differences in class and economic status are more pronounced. Furthermore, the student grassroots have not yet engaged fully with debates around commodification of knowledge. Therefore, to deconstruct narratives and expose the political content in incremental changes continues to be a crucial element of any mobilizing strategy. This is something we can use our abilities as researchers and critical academics to contribute towards. 

Hence we have set up a forum for debate on the webpage Here we invite students, employees, politicians, practitioners, and others to discuss critically and imagine what a university should and could be about. This initiative seeks to expand the frame of discussions away from the narrow discourse of New Public Management towards more normative and ideological debates about the role and future of universities in society. Our aim is for such debates to contribute towards building a more long-term critical awareness, which can help us to expose consistently how seemingly technical adjustments are in fact ideological clouds that change the role, values, and life of Norwegian universities. However, a remaining question is how to move from exposure to instigating direct transformative actions.