The end of the Nordic Summer University?

2015-04-29 07:51

In 2016, lack of funding may put an end to the Nordic Summer University, NSU. The situation can be blamed on research policy and weaknesses in NSU’s operations, says the Nordic Council of Ministers. Not at all, says NSU and points to errors in the evaluation and the prevailing attitudes to research and knowledge.

Ever since the 1950s, the Nordic Summer University has served as a meeting place for researchers, students and people from various parts of society who want to learn more and participate in the creation of new knowledge. With a democratic organisation that depends heavily on voluntary contributions, NSU aims to stimulate understanding and cooperation between different academic disciplines, primarily within the humanities and social sciences, as well as serve as an arena for networking and cultural and knowledge exchange. Today NSU has participants from not only the Nordic and Baltic regions but also from several other countries.

Over the years, NSU has contributed to the development of both new research areas and new theories. In the last ten years, artistic research has found a platform in NSU, and NSU has also played an important role in the development of gender research.

‘It’s fair to say that NSU is the cradle of Nordic gender research, which is an example of what this kind of institution can do. Something happens in society, there’s a forum, people from several countries meet and a dynamic environment emerges,’ says Johanna Sjöstedt, master’s student in history of ideas at the University of Gothenburg, member of NSU’s board and coordinator of Exploring Affect, one of NSU’s study circles.

The purpose of the move

In 2013, NSU was transferred from the Nordic Council of Ministers for Education and Research (MR-U) to NordForsk. The move was due partly to budget cuts at MR-U and partly to the Nordic Committee of Senior Officials for Education and Research (EK-U) assessing that NSU’s operations to some extent overlapped those of NordForsk and that coordinating their administration would yield significant efficiency gains.

NordForsk is an organisation under the Nordic Council of Ministers. It is governed by the Nordic national research councils, which also provide two-thirds of the funding. The remaining one-third of the funding comes from the Nordic Council of Ministers. The purpose of the move has to do with another change, namely that the national research councils and not the Nordic Council of Ministers from now on will manage the funding of research and research networks in the Nordic cooperation.

‘The Nordic research cooperation will be based on the priorities of the individual countries, where the research councils will decide which research areas are scientifically relevant to develop and fund,’ says , senior adviser at EK-U.

According to Holmberg, this is the only way the resources at Nordic level can focus on areas that administer and reflect current needs for knowledge and yield scientific excellence and Nordic added value.

‘MR-U will continue to prioritise development of scientific and scholarly networks. But the national governments believe this can be done through NordForsk and NOS-HS, the Joint Committee for Nordic Research Councils in the Humanities and Social Sciences. As a result, NordForsk has this year been asked to find out how this can best be done in the future.’

Reject the criticism

NSU has mainly been funded via annual applications to the Nordic Council of Ministers, in recent years totalling SEK 1.4 million (EUR 150 000), and the same amount from NordForsk since 2013. In connection with the transition to NordForsk, EK-U requested an evaluation of NSU and appointed an expert group to analyse the outcome and draft a decision in EK-U. Based on this work, EK-U decided in December 2014 to discontinue the funding of NSU from 2016.

According to the board of NSU, this means that NSU has to close, as acknowledged by the expert group as a possible consequence. The board has also heavily criticised both the evaluation and the process surrounding it, as well as the comments and analysis presented by the expert group.

The Nordic Council of Ministers and EK-U reject the criticism against the evaluation. Holmberg also points out that the evaluation was not the only factor leading to the decision.

‘There is a misunderstanding that the decision to cut the funding of NSU was solely based on the evaluation. Rather, EK-U has considered the aims of the Council of Ministers’ research policy and the work in relation to Nordic research policy more generally. But the decision is also based on the evaluation, which points to weaknesses in the organisation’s achievement of objectives, relevance and scientific quality,’ he says.

The value should be recongnised

NSU sees the prevailing policy approach as problematic, since NSU does not fit within the quality concept that the measurability requirements and the striving for excellent research are based on.

That approach to research is the very antithesis to what NSU represents, Sjöstedt explains. NSU is a participation-oriented, democratic organisation with a view of knowledge as a citizen’s right and a means for personal development.

`My point is of course not that all research should be conducted NSU style, but instead that there should be opportunities for it and that the value of this type of institution should be recognised,’ says Sjöstedt.

Holmberg would like to see a discussion with NSU about how the Nordic cooperation is designed, and about Nordic research policy. At this point, however, it is up to NordForsk to decide on the future of NSU, he says.

‘It’s entirely up to the NordForsk’s board what they want to do from here on. If the national research councils want to keep funding NSU, they can do so. At the political level, the countries want to continue supporting scientific and scholarly networks, perhaps within the humanities and social sciences in particular,’ says Holmberg.

Author Inga-Bodil Ekselius
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