THE SOCIAL CONTRACT

18 January 2012

On Tuesday the biggest “sector meeting” within higher education in Norway will take place.

By the President Tom Clolbjørnsen

On an invitation from Tora Aasland, Minister of Research and Higher Education, the annual contact seminar between the Ministry of Education and Research and the heads of the universities and colleges in the country will be held.

It is interesting, and quite appropriate that this year the Minister has put “Modernization of the Universities and Higher Education Sector” on the agenda. Because we are, in fact, facing great changes in the time to come, and traditionally, universities and colleges have not been first in line for change! But now this will be different. This is illustrated for instance by the international competition for high-quality academics and students. At the same time I believe we are at the beginning of a technological revolution regarding teaching methods. Naturally, I am thinking of the Internet and the possibilities it provides for new ways of communicating knowledge. And it affects all industries and professions. In today’s edition of the “Dagens Næringsliv” a representative from the financial sector maintains that the stockbroker profession will disappear completely due to the digitalization of transactions in shares and bonds. This is perhaps exaggerating a little, but there is no doubt that drastic changes will take place. But what will happen to the teaching profession at universities and colleges? What can be taken over by digital media and where will personal involvement still be needed? I may be old-fashioned, but I am strongly convinced that when it comes to personal dialogue, i.e. conversations where questions, answers and solutions are developed as part of process, face-to-face contact is superior to digital communication. Naturally, the chemistry between the participants in such conversations plays a role and this requires physical nearness.

Let me return to the conference that is being held on Tuesday. The Minister has challenged the President of BI to make a speech on the topic of “Living in a Social Contract”. It is nice that BI is asked to contribute since, without being particularly paranoiac, it is fair to say that so far we have been kept at a certain distance by the society of state-owned universities and colleges. But now this seems to be changing.

Some believe that universities and colleges must enjoy full independence and not be made subject to any expectations from society at all. To some extent this is sensible, since society does not always realize what knowledge is required until it has been produced through research. At the same time, however, we have to realize that society allocates large resources to higher education and is entitled to expect something in return.

As a private institution BI does not receive very large amounts of money in the form of government support – the figure for 2012 is about NOK 227 million in total. In addition, however, we bring a large investment cost upon the state! Students who spend a year at BI might instead have been working and thus contributed directly to the value creation in society. Society’s loss in the form of value creation during this one year constitutes a substantial part of society’s cost by investing in education provided by BI. This amounts to a substantial figure. BI has about 20 000 students, of which some study part time. If we convert these into full-time equivalents, the number totals abut 13 300 students in the course of a year. If we assume that they would each have had an annual income of NOK 450 000, this means that the socio-economic alternative cost by allowing people to study at BI for one year is about NOK 6 billion, which must be added to the 227 million NOK we receive as a direct grant. The amount is probably a little too high, since many of BI’s full-time students have part-time jobs. There is no doubt, however, that the amount is substantial.

On the basis of this it is only fair that that society has high expectations as to what BI can deliver. In practice this means that the authorities want to be sure that we deliver what we promise and maintain a high academic standard. Within this framework it is up to BI to work out the academic content.

You can also see all news here.