Debatt ● Ole Kristian Dyskeland og Regina Paul

Are we dissuading international talents from Norwegian academia?

We believe that requiring proficiency in Norwegian as a prerequisite for university management arenas dissuades young researchers from choosing Norway as their home, says Dyskeland and Paul.

In general, we think that the current courses designed for learning Norwegian are often offered in a manner that discourages participation, Dyskeland og Raul writes.
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As most of the Norwegian universities are public institutions, they aim to strike a balance between serving the interests of the public and maintaining an efficient workforce. As the language of instruction is determined accordingly, this has a significant impact on us, PhD candidates and postdocs. Given that the greatest level of internationalization is observed for PhD and postdocs positions, this effect is particularly noteworthy. Norway attracts talented young researchers to pursue PhD degrees and postdoc positions. These positions are primarily advertised as English positions, often neglecting to mention the challenges one may face in participating in the university's not-research related activities due to their proficiency in Norwegian or a Scandinavian language. We believe that requiring proficiency in Norwegian as a prerequisite for university management arenas dissuades young researchers from choosing Norway as their 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. Learning a new language requires time, effort, and dedication. In general, we think that the current courses designed for learning Norwegian are often offered in a manner that discourages participation. This is due to various factors, such as conflicting research obligations like seminars, meetings, lab hours, and travel, as well as contract start dates. Regina's experience is a prime example of this, 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.

There a relatively low-hanging fruit for better teaching Norwegian such as evening classes, and more flexible ways into the courses. In general, 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 learning Norwegian. If we continue to make it difficult for non-Norwegian speakers to have a voice and feel a sense of belonging in their institution, feel inferior to their Norwegian colleagues, we will only push them away.

Even if one is eager to learn Norwegian, often by the time they become proficient, their temporary contract may be nearing its end. This might result in a large group of enthusiastic academic staff being excluded from fully contributing to democracy at the university and choosing not to stay in Norway. Then, how can we utilize their skills to contribute to the development of Norwegian research and institutions? Carefully designed language courses can foster connections of newcomers to the institution while simultaneously introducing them to the Norwegian language. Furthermore, they can help newcomers settle in and understand Norwegian culture while building relationships with others in similar circumstances.

Based on the aforementioned factors, we agree with Simen Bø's and Nicolas Gibney’s position that it is unreasonable to expect individuals pursuing doctoral degrees or holding postdoctoral positions in Norway for a short period to become fluent in Norwegian to participate in shaping the development of universities. As Nicolas mentioned in his op-ed last week, one solution to this could be to keep the documents and materials for the meetings in Norwegian, which can be easily translated using available free tools, while conducting the board meetings themselves in English. This approach does not compromise the use of Norwegian language in academia, but rather makes the university more inclusive and maximizes the use of the knowledge and expertise of our international colleagues. Furthermore, it could 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 that the discourse on the Norwegian language be shifted to the lower levels of university management. This could involve creating a more inclusive and accessible environment for non-Norwegian speakers which will allow them to take on active roles and feel more involved, such as in department boards. Although we agree with the perspectives of Simen and Nicolas, we believe that immediate changes must be implemented at the departmental and research committee levels.

As president and vice-president at the association of doctoral organisations in Norway (SiN), we also serve as presidents of our respective local PhD/postdoc organisations at NHH and NTNU. As for Ole Kristian (from Norway), questions regarding the direction he would like to take have been raised in relation to his leadership positions - these are also the kind of inquiries one would expect from a leader. However, for Regina (from Russia), the issue of her proficiency in Norwegian has been brought up as a concern in relation to her holding a leadership role. Nevertheless, once she was elected, she has shown that where there’s a will, there’s a way, and under her leadership the PhD/postdoc organisation at NTNU has been more active than before.

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.

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