Diversity in Norwegian Academia 2021

Diversity ensures democratic and epistemic legitimacy. Although the Norwegian research sector and higher education institutions have steadily improved at ensuring diversity in recruitment processes, there is still scope for improvement in utilizing the resultant diversity.

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Recently, the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU) and Statistics Norway released new statistics on diversity. These updated figures include information about immigrants and descendants of immigrants employed in academic roles in the research and higher education sector in Norway during 2007-2018.

The statistics show that the proportion of immigrants in such roles has increased from 18 to 29 percent (with considerable variation across disciplines); immigrants most often occupy temporary or trainee positions; and notably, immigrants’ descendants are clearly underrepresented in academic positions, despite the fact that this group comprises a significant proportion of students in Norway.

Feroz Mehmood Shah and Marta Bivand Erdal from the Young Academy of Norway (AYF) commented on the diversity statistics when they were published at a webinar hosted by the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research (KIF). In this piece we reflect on their feedback and identify three key challenges for diversity in Norwegian research and higher education moving forward.

Academia relies on democratic legitimacy. A common perspective is that the employee composition of public institutions should reflect the population, yet it is just as important that positions in public institutions are equally accessible to members of diverse groups. The ideal of reflecting society can be a touchstone for this.

The diversity statistics show that very few descendants of immigrants are recruited to research positions. To widen diversity in recruitment, we require more knowledge about the obstacles that persist and how to address them.

As part of the knowledge sector, academia also rests on epistemic legitimacy. This is entangled with the knowledge-related facet of diversity, routinely termed “cognitive diversity”, which is often promoted as an important driver for innovation. Put simply, ‘birds of a feather flock together’,– but (often) it is the case that ground-breaking progress occurs when different perspectives interact.

In order to facilitate this type of diversity – which extends beyond how our appearances are, or by the name we are given, to the veritable fundament of academic work – it is essential to implement targeted measures.

Academic institutions hold responsibility for ensuring diversity in academia, and for furthermore ensuring that this diversity is operationalized. If the intra-organizational culture within an institution is influenced by rules of play developed by or for a majority that exhibits dominating or homogenizing tendencies, there is a risk that innovation is hindered and the potential of diversity remains untapped.

When launching the latest statistics, Hebe Gunnes from NIFU pointed out that temporary positions account for approximately half the total increase in the number of immigrants in Norwegian research and higher education. She wondered whether this may mean that Norwegian institutions are good at international recruitment, but not as good at extending diversity in appointments to more senior, permanent positions.

Feedback from early-career international researchers shows that many find that they are recruited to temporary or trainee roles where the employer attaches strong emphasis to research activities, but makes little effort to develop the researchers’ broader competencies, nor to integrate them into deeper institutional workings. Many seek opportunities to learn Norwegian, which can potentially open up opportunities for teaching, performing administrative tasks, and participation in informal settings.

A separate survey carried out by the Young Academy of Norway in 2018, asked “Is there room for diversity in academia?”. This offers findings on internationalization, discrimination and sexual harassment among young researchers in Norway. We found that many institutions were in the process of offering Norwegian lessons, but that there was considerable variation in the extent to which these sessions were accessible for early-career, temporary researchers. This clearly raises questions about how Norwegian academia manages the resource that “academic migrants” constitute, given the salience of Norwegian as an institutional working language many places within the sector, including at its higher levels.

A common perception among our respondents, was the understanding of a ‘two-track system’ in Norwegian research and higher education: one oriented at producing research, and one qualifying researchers to take up permanent positions. This was also highlighted in a recent NIFU report on postdoc fellowships,  which showed that the effect of this distinction is not limited to “academic migrants”. If Norwegian academia is to benefit from the diversity that exists today, pathways to permanent positions must be more transparently and consistently defined and genuinely open to all.

Equal treatment and diversity in research and higher education are both institutional and political responsibilities and aspirations. We propose three measures that can contribute to securing greater democratic and epistemic legitimacy for Norwegian academia:

  1. Institutions must offer, and pay for, Norwegian lessons for all “academic migrants”, regardless of whether they are in permanent or temporary positions. It is not sufficient to consider «immigrants» as one group in this context, each institution ought therefore to develop targeted measures.
  2. Institutions must ensure diverse representation on boards and committees in a transparent way by having clear diversity criteria in recruitment processes. Simultaneously, it must be recognized that it is often in informal settings that the risk of discrimination is the most significant. Thus, considering organizational culture, as well as rules, is important.
  3. Universities and university colleges must closely examine what barriers contribute to the continuing trend for descendants of immigrants to be underrepresented in academic careers.
  • The Diversity Statistics (statistics on immigrants and descendants of immigrants in Norwegian research and higher education) provides “an overview of immigrants and descendants of immigrants among researchers and professional staff, as well as technical- administrative staff with higher education, in Norwegian research and higher education in the years 2007, 2010, 2014, and 2018” (NIFU). Main findings from the update are also presented in the NIFU insight series, NIFU insights 2020: 19 (in English); NIFU insight 2020: 17 (in Norwegian).
  • Statistics Norway: Overview Immigrants and Norwegian-born to immigrants parent demonstrate that in 2020, immigrants and Norwegian-born to immigrant parents added up to 18.2 per cent (979.254 persons in total; of which 790.497 immigrants and 188.757 Norwegian born to immigrant parents) of the total population in Norway.
  • Young Academy of Norway – “Is there room for diversity in academia?” – survey report summary in English.

The authors are members of the Young Academy of Norway, and this text is written in their capacity as such.

This text was first published in Norwegian in Khrono Mangfold I Forsknings-Norge 202111 February 2021.

Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

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