Speech from the opening of EUA 2017 Annual Conference

Dag_Rune_Olsen_smlThis is a speech held by rector Dag Rune Olsen during the opening session of the EUA 2017 Annual Conference – Autonomy and freedom: The future sustainability of universities. 

Dear minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, dear EUA-president, dear colleagues and friends

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you all to Bergen and to the University of Bergen, and our University Aula. The aula was finished two years ago and is located in the buildings of The Bergen Museum, founded in 1825. Although UiB where founded in 1946 our history and academic traditions dates back to Bergen museum. Wilhelm Frimann Koren Christie, whom was also the first president of the Norwegian parliament – Stortinget – from 1814, was the founder of Bergen Museum. For Christie and the other founders the ideals from the Age of Enlightenment where central – they wanted to contribute to the public debate – and they wanted to contribute to the building of a new nation. I believe – also in the light of recent development – that these ideals still are important, and we should treasure and foster them.

Bergen has always been an international city – participating in international networks and associations. It is often said that Bergen has “its back against the mountains and the face towards the world” – I believe that is an accurate description of Bergen and – not at least – the mindset of the people. This mindset has also influenced our university – and shaped the profile of our university. The university are an international research university, collaborating with scholars all over the world and we participate in numerous networks and associations. In an increasingly competitive world, we believe that cooperation will be increasingly important in years to come. International cooperation strengthens us as an institution and rises our quality, it gives our student the opportunity to go abroad and it gives foreign students the possibility to come to Norway. We gain from the cooperation, but it also commits us. Academia is an international community – and therefore I am extremely proud to welcome you here to this annual EUA conference focusing on universities autonomy and academic freedom. These are core values of our community and integral part of our identity. Core values that we need to defend – but also explain.

Institutional autonomy is a crucial prerequisite for the success in and value of research and higher education. For universities to fulfill their mission, autonomy and academic freedom is vital. Academic freedom is important and in Norway it included in the legislation in 2007. The debate about academic freedom and autonomy for universities has picked up recently, but still, the situation in Norway does not come close to the situation that our colleagues in other countries experience.

An important part of our mission as a university, that also have a central place in our institutions strategy, is the contribution to address global societal challenges that our societies faces. Through research, education, innovation and dissemination we have a key-role in solving this challenges. But again, for us to contribute we need to build on autonomy and academic freedom. In times like these, in times of fake news and facts it is more important than ever to highlight and demonstrate the importance of solid, independent knowledge. Our university board passed a new strategy in 2015 with a vision that “knowledge shapes society”. I strongly believe that the recent development make this vision even more relevant.

Looking at the Autonomy Scoreboard presented by the EUA, one will see that Norway scores high on university autonomy over all, but low on economic autonomy. This relates to substantial state funding of Norwegian universities and state regulated funding, but also to – which I believe is a good thing – the lack of tuition fees. This conference will include important debates regarding the various aspects of autonomy – debates that I believe always will be relevant for us as rectors and leaders of universities.
In Norway we have seen reforms lately, including a structural reform reducing the number of higher education institutions. This means fewer, and bigger – and hopefully more robust – institutions. I believe, especially in a small country like Norway, that it is extremely important that the higher education institutions make strategic priorities that ensure diversity.

The Ministry of education has also introduced a new tool, performance agreements, that some of you will know from your own country. This tool – if used in the right way – I believe can play a key-role in this strategic positioning of our universities. It would be a big mistake if we – in Norway – aim at a larger number of universities of similar profiles. I believe that this is the time to cultivate our strengths, develop lasting and long term cooperation, across institutions and across nations. We need to embrace diversity and make it our strength. Only then, can we collectively contribute in a meaningful way to the grad societal challenges.

Earlier this week, there where discussions going on in Hungary regarding a new law-proposal. The law-proposal, which may lead to foreign universities being banned, where regrettably adopted by the the Hungarian parliament. For quite some time we have heard about the situation for academics in Turkey. Together with a group of Norwegian colleagues, I last year sent an open letter to Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Børge Brende where we expressed our concerns regarding the academic freedom in Turkey. It is necessary that the international community follow the situation in countries where autonomy and academic freedom are challenged closely – so that we can act when needed!

As an academic community, we must stand up for Scholars and Students, which for various reasons is threatened due to their scholarly activities. Therefore we at this university are proud to support – and participate – to the work undertaken by organizations like the Scholars at Risk. This is an international network of higher education institutions, and individuals, dedicated to protecting threatened scholars and promoting academic freedom. In Norway, we also have pilot scheme for students – Students at Risk – where students are given the opportunity to continue their education in Norway after expulsion and threats in their home countries.  We are proud supporters of this scheme as we believe that it is more important than ever that we stand up for our colleagues and values.

This conference focuses on autonomy and academic freedom –  issues of critical importance for academia – today and in the future. I’m looking forward to participating in this important debate, and especially to hear and share reflections across different countries. Once again, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome you all to Bergen and our university. I hope that this conference will bring us as an academic community forward. Thank you for your attention!

Dag Rune Olsen,
Rector UiB



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