Are we dissuading international talents from Norwegian academia?

Ole Kristian Dyskeland, President SiN and NHHdoc

Regina Paul, Vice-President SiN and (former) President DION

SiN, Association of Doctoral Organisations in Norway. DION is the interest organization at NTNU, and NHHdoc is the PhD Student union/association at NHH Norwegian School of Economics.

As most of the Norwegian universities are public institutions, they aim to balance public interests with workforce efficiency. Language of instruction has a major impact on international doctoral candidates, who make up almost 50% of the PhD candidates at Norwegian universities. Advertised as English positions, PhDs and postdoctoral fellows may struggle with non-research related activities due to lack of proficiency in Norwegian or a Scandinavian language. In our opinion, making proficiency in Norwegian a de-facto requirement for university representative roles and committees dissuades young researchers from selecting Norway as their permanent home.

Norwegian courses are generally offered by universities, and temporary employees are encouraged to take them. While this is a great opportunity, it comes with a few challenges. As we all know, learning a new language requires time, effort, and dedication. Additionally, we think that the current Norwegian language courses are offered in a way that discourages participation.  Since these courses are usually held during regular working hours, they often clash with other commitments such as seminars, meetings, and experiments. Additionally, travel and contractual start dates can complicate this matter further. Regina’s experience is a prime example of the latter, as she arrived after the initial course had already started and had to wait for the next semester to begin learning the basics of Norwegian language. Her progress in learning Norwegian was further slowed down through a research stay abroad.

Therefore, we find that universities are forcing international researchers to make trade-offs between learning Norwegian and performing their jobs as researchers at those same institutions. To ensure that non-Norwegian speakers are not at a disadvantage by devoting their time to learning Norwegian, we need to revise the incentives for doing so. For example, a relatively low-hanging fruit would be to provide Norwegian language classes in the evening. If we continue to make it difficult for non-Norwegian speakers to have a voice and feel included in their institution, they will perceive themselves as inferior to their Norwegian colleagues, and we risk alienating them.

Even those initially eager to learn Norwegian may find that by the time they reach proficiency, their temporary contract is coming to an end. This might result in a large group of passionate academic staff being pushed away from the institution and opting to leave Norway.  How can we utilize their skills to advance Norway in this scenario? In early May, Jyoti Sohal-David highlighted in Aftenposten that even internationals who possess official proficiency in Norwegian still face difficulties in securing employment in Norway due to a lack of fluency as perceived by employers. We believe that Norwegian higher education can play a crucial role in preventing this situation by addressing some readily achievable measures. For example, carefully designed language courses can foster connections of newcomers to the institution while simultaneously introducing them to the Norwegian language. Furthermore, they can help them settle in and understand Norwegian culture while building relationships with others in similar circumstances.

A recent development at NTNU has prompted some thought-provoking questions. In the past year, new language policy was established and put into effect at the beginning of this year. Under these policy, Norwegian language courses at NTNU will no longer prioritize PhD candidates and postdocs, as learning Norwegian is not obligatory for them. Interestingly, while the largest university in Norway acknowledges that temporary scientific employees do not require Norwegian language skills, it continues to maintain that being a representative for temporary scientific employees or attending a committee necessitates proficiency in Norwegian. This situation begs the question: Isn’t this contradictory?

Based on the aforementioned factors, we think it is unreasonable to expect individuals pursuing doctoral degrees or holding postdoctoral positions in Norway to become fluent enough in Norwegian to participate in shaping the development of universities. Instead, we should provide them with various opportunities to learn Norwegian. For example, earlier, Nicolas Gibney suggested that one option could be to keep the preparatory materials for committee meetings in Norwegian, while conducting the board meetings themselves in English. This approach does not compromise use of Norwegian language among administration; instead, it fosters inclusivity and fully harnesses the knowledge and expertise of our international colleagues. Furthermore, it would facilitate the development of Norwegian language skills among international employees. It is also likely that international individuals who wish to engage in university politics have prior experience and knowledge, providing valuable insights and fresh perspectives to decision-making bodies at the university. This can be beneficial in addressing existing issues or exploring new opportunities.

We suggest moving the discussion on Norwegian language proficiency to lower levels of university management. This entails establishing opportunities for non-Norwegian speakers to engage in department boards and other active roles. Researchers possess valuable knowledge and have first-hand experience with research management. By leveraging this expertise, we can actively involve international staff and assist them in acquiring the Norwegian language skills. We urge for prompt action at the departmental and research committee levels.

As the president and vice-president at the Association of Doctoral Organisations in Norway (SiN), we have experience from our roles as presidents of the local PhD/postdoc organisations at NHH and NTNU, respectively. Ole Kristian (Norwegian) faced standard leadership questions during his presidency, while Regina (Russian) faced concerns about her leadership role due to the lack of Norwegian language proficiency. However, Regina demonstrated that determination prevails, and under her leadership, DION became more active and known.

We can only attract young researchers to stay beyond the duration of their temporary contracts by creating a sense of inclusion, empowering them to have a say, and letting them to actively participate in the development of their institution.

Update on 01/07/2023 – A modified version of above article appeared in Khrono 24th May 2023: