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FINNUT-Forskning og innovasjon i utdanningssektoren

Re-Structure: Redesigning the Norwegian higher education landscape

Alternative title: Re-Structure: Redesing av landskapet for høyere utdanning i Norge

Awarded: NOK 15.0 mill.

The landscape for higher education in Norway has changed substantially after the Structural Reform that was launched in 2015y. Many universities and colleges have merged into larger institutions and as a result of the reform, Norwegian higher education now also includes several large multi-campus universities and university colleges. The main goal of the reform is to achieve high quality in education and research, accompanied by goals related to regional development, efficiency and accessibility. This research-based evaluation examines the extent to which the reform brings Norwegian higher education closer to the stated reform goals and the factors that contribute to goal attainment. A larger number of interviews with key informants in policy formulation, as well as institutional leadership and employees at six merged higher education institutions has been conducted. A nation-wide large-scale survey has been conducted among academic staff. In addition, the data consists of various public documents and statistics. The policy analysis indicates that the Structural Reform is part of a long chain of previous reforms and policy debates in Norwegian higher education, e.g. the Quality Reform, the proposals from the Stjernø Committee, the SAK process - initiatives that stimulated more cooperation, division of labour and concentration in the university and college sector. The organisational processes that are taking place are also influenced by other concurrent reform initiatives, e.g. the introduction of the five-year master level teacher education and development of new shared guidelines for health and social professions. Mergers as a policy solution is not new in Norwegian higher education and can be seen as an idea that has matured over time. The Structural reform itself was developed through an asymmetrical dialogue between the authorities and the top leadership at selected higher education institutions. Policy formulation and implementation is characterized by a high degree of communication, including persuasion, between these actors. Most merged institutions have chosen a model for academic organization that largely reflects the faculty structure that existed before the merger. A review of the merged institutions' board documents in the period 2016-2020 shows that the boards intended the academic reorganization to create institutions with stronger academic groups and a clear academic and strategic profile. How they assess this goal, and how they prioritize in the reorganization process, however, varies from institution to institution. This is reflected in the choice of organisational models, which varies from a traditional "discipline model" with a broad faculty structure to a narrower faculty structure based on an "academic" or "interdisciplinary" model. An analysis of institutional missions of all Norwegian HEIs shows that mergers may not necessarily reduce system level diversity, although they may affect the organisational mission of individual institutions. Analysis show that the institutions have a clearer study program profile measured as a proportion of study programs in various subject areas and also a strengthened master's degree profile, some is due to the ongoing transition from four-year to five-year teacher education. There has also been an increase in the number of students per study program. We observe, however, that graduated students from the merged institutions report less satisfaction on the education than candidates from non-merged institutions. Likewise, we find that scientific staff at merged institutions are less positive about developments within their study programmes and research units compared to those not having been part of a merger process. We further observe that mergers may alter organizational and academic identities. Although scientific staff may identify highly with the new organizational identity, they may simultaneously experience tensions and pressures on their academic identity, i.e. teaching and research, or they may have strong academic identity and low identification with the new organization. The merged institutions increased the publication volume between 2011 and 2019. The largest institutions have the lowest growth, and several of the smaller institutions have very high growth rates, being indicative of stronger research ambitions. However, the publication patterns are differentiated and vary both between disciplines and at the individual level. New analysis on the relation between organisational characteristics and scientific performance, indicate that factors such as elected or appointed leadership, single or multi-campus organizing, or departmental size seems to have little significance. However, highly productive individuals do matter The project is led by NIFU and carried out by an international research team.

This project answers to the call for a research-based evaluation of the structural reform that substantially changed the Norwegian higher education landscape. The project is designed as a multi-level and multi-method project, employing several disciplinary perspectives. The project applies two key empirical lenses: outcome-oriented and process-oriented. The outcome analysis is based on an extensive analysis of relevant indicators, while the analysis of merger processes focuses on capturing opportunities, tensions, solutions and unintended consequences. The project is organised in four work packages. In the first work package, the project analyses the reform itself, to uncover inconsistencies in the reform itself and how it interacts with previous and concurrent change processes in the system. In second work package, the project examines the processes within the merged institutions through a series of in-depth case studies. Given that we know that higher education institutions are institutionally complex organizations, the work package examines how institutions manage new forms of organizational hybridity that emerges as a result of merger processes, how they work with academic integration processes, and how the organisational processes that are set into motion contribute to fulfilling reform objectives. In the third work package, the project examines reform outputs through a broad range of quantitative indicators. The project will develop a novel database that includes various performance data on departmental level and will in this manner provide a more nuanced and detailed image of reform effects on academic environments. The fourth work package is focused on bringing the previous work packages together and answering the overarching question of the evaluation: To what extent does the reform bring the Norwegian higher education sector closer to the goals of the reform, and which factors condition the realization of these goals?

Funding scheme:

FINNUT-Forskning og innovasjon i utdanningssektoren