Calls for better integration of international researchers

December 31, 2014 - 06:00

Norwegian universities are much too concerned with counting international researchers and students, and they care too little about how the researchers are integrated into the environment. This is according to Julien S. Bourrelle, a research fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Ethnic diversity at the universities should also be reflected on boards and committees, according to Julien S. Bourrelle.(Illustrative photo: Microstock)

The increase in the number of international researchers and doctoral research fellows at Norwegian universities and university colleges has been enormous in recent years. The proportion of researchers with foreign citizenship has risen from 15 to 20 percent from 2007 to 2012. One of three persons who completed a doctoral degree in Norway in 2014 had foreign citizenship, according to the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU).

The largest proportion is found at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), where 34 percent of the researchers have foreign citizenship, according to the government’s “Research Barometer” report.

But is this increase a sign that Norwegian universities and university colleges have become more internationalized?

“Counting foreigners and nationalities is a poor way to measure internationalization,” says Julien S. Bourrelle.

Originally from French-speaking Canada, Bourrelle is a research fellow in the Department of Architectural History, Design and Technology at NTNU. He also holds courses and lectures on Norwegian culture and society through his intercultural communication company, Mondå.

No foreigners on the board

“We should look instead to see how integrated foreigners are in the university structure,” says Bourrelle.

He believes that his own employer, NTNU, has a way to go in this regard.

“Although NTNU has many international researchers and students, its leadership is an ethnically homogenous group consisting almost exclusively of Norwegians.”

At one time, he was the first and only foreigner on NTNU’s board. According to Bourrelle, the board had a requirement that its members must understand Norwegian.

“This is somewhat counterproductive when NTNU also aims to be a leading university internationally.”

Good at making practical adaptations

Bourrelle points out that Norwegian educational institutions in general are good at making adaptations and providing practical help with moving to a new country, such as obtaining a visa, work permit, housing and identification number.

Julien S. Bourrelle, a research fellow at NTNU and professional speaker. (Photo: private)

At the same time, a large number of the international doctoral candidates leave Norway after they complete their degrees. Little is known about why this is so.

According to Bourrelle, an important reason that international researchers and students do not stay in Norway is that they often find it difficult to understand the Norwegian culture and way of being.

Struggle with understanding all things Norwegian

Bourrelle says that many international researchers and students today live separated from Norwegian society.

“They live relatively isolated, in places like Moholt in Trondheim and Kringsjå in Oslo. They socialize with each other, but they don’t get to know Norwegians and Norwegian language and culture. When they don’t know the culture or the language, it’s not so strange that they don’t want to continue living in Norway.”

“Maybe the institutions should recruit fewer international students and researchers, but invest more in the ones they take in,” he suggests.

Norwegian courses are the key

Bourrelle thinks that the path to understanding Norway and Norwegians goes via the Norwegian language. In light of this, the universities and university colleges should provide better opportunities to study Norwegian.

He explains that when he came to Norway as a research fellow at NTNU five years ago, research fellows were not offered access to language courses taught at the university. Instead they were referred to courses offered by the municipality.

“The municipalities’ courses are not suited to meet the needs of highly educated people. As a result, many research fellows ended up not learning Norwegian,” says Bourrelle.

“How can Norwegian universities and university colleges facilitate the integration of international researchers and students?”

“First of all, everyone must have access to good Norwegian language training. At NTNU, doctoral students must get approval from their academic supervisors to take Norwegian courses. Many of the supervisors are also foreign and they may have few incentives to approve this since many of them have English as their working language.”

“Secondly, people need cultural knowledge about Norway and Norwegians. They can be offered courses or guidebooks so that they can learn about and understand Norwegian culture,” says Bourrelle.

“NTNU guarantees Norwegian courses”
Arne Kristian Hestnes, Director of Personnel at NTNU. (Photo: NTNU)

Arne Kristian Hestnes, Director of Personnel at NTNU, rejects Bourrelle’s claim that research fellows must obtain approval from their supervisors in order to attend Norwegian courses.

“Our policy is that all of our international employees, including doctoral and post-doctoral research fellows, are guaranteed a space in Norwegian courses, provided their departments cover the costs. The department chairs are responsible for prioritizing who should attend Norwegian courses.”

Hestnes believes, however, that Bourrelle may be correct in that some department chairs do not see the need for international employees to learn Norwegian because their academic environments are English speaking.

“Some are afraid that the time research fellows spend learning Norwegian may negatively affect their doctoral degrees. We also find that the research fellows who don’t speak English well are more concerned with learning English than Norwegian.”

Counting may have its benefits

According to Hestnes, counting the number of international students and employees is not incompatible with working to achieve good integration at NTNU.

“When we count how many foreigners we have, this is also related to making adaptations for this group. International researcher mobility is critical for the universities. It demonstrates that the research is international and achieves a high standard. This is why counting international researchers may have its benefits. It indicates research quality and also helps the university to know how much funding is needed for incoming travel, housing and the like.”

According to Hestnes, the fact that the university board consists almost exclusively of Norwegians mainly reflects societal trends related to immigration and integration.

“Those of us in the university’s leadership have little influence over who sits on the university board. The internal representatives are voted on through an election scheme. There are various employee groups that vote on and select their representatives. But whether a foreigner feels comfortable enough to run for a seat on the board of a Norwegian university is a question of integration.”

Few foreigners apply

Hestnes notes, however, that NTNU has many foreigners who hold leadership positions at the professional group and departmental levels.

“At NTNU, the rector, vice rector and deans are hired, not selected like at many other universities. Here we apply the qualification principle, meaning that if a foreigner with the right qualifications had applied, that person would have gotten the job.”

“Do many foreigners apply for these jobs?”

“There have not been many foreigners who have applied so far. Last years a few foreigners applied for positions as dean, but they were not nominated as the first choice,” says Hestnes.

Complex integration

He states that NTNU organizes a number of different courses on Norwegian culture as well as social events for international employees.

“However, we don’t have a strong tradition for career development. After all, integration involves the employer, the employee and the surrounding society. Society as a whole, not just NTNU, is responsible for the enormous task of integration.”

A factor that must be taken into consideration, according to Hestnes, is that the number of doctoral degrees has increased dramatically after the Quality Reform.

“We estimate that there are job opportunities at NTNU for about 15 percent of the research fellows after they complete their doctoral degrees. We are now educating them to find employment outside of our university. This is part of the reason that NTNU has thought less about integration after candidates complete their degrees.”

“Can always be better”

Hestnes does not completely reject Bourrelle’s recommendation to take in fewer foreigners and to do a better job of including those who do come. However, he thinks that this would be difficult to achieve under the current schemes.

“Taking in fewer international researchers and students is no solution in the short term,” says Hestnes.

He points out that the Ministry of Education and Research uses the number of completed doctoral degrees as a measure of NTNU’s performance. Any reduction in the number of international research fellows and researchers will negatively affect the amount of government funding that NTNU receives.

He does not think that the ministry would agree to this either.

“When that is said, I don’t reject the notion that we must do an even better job and think along new lines. We can always work in a more conscious way with integration,” says Hestnes.

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Translated by
Connie Stultz
KILDEN has the national responsibility for promotion and information about Norwegian gender research nationally and abroad. Read more

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