Internationalization at home - minister Tora aasland interviewed by David John Smith

The Minister of Research and Higher Education, Tora Aasland, has long been involved in the research and higher education environment in Stavanger, and has been instrumental in the ongoing development of the highly professional environment in the region. Elected Governor of the Rogaland region in 1991, and then appointed to head the Ministry of Research and Higher Education in 2007, Minister Aasland has been key factor in moving the research environment forward in Norway.

Minister of Research and Higher Education Tora Aasland.
© Kunnskapsdepartement

Q: Stavanger has a number of important research institutions, including IRIS, the Research Centre on Sustainable Energy, the National Centre of Industrial Gastronomy and the NCE Culinology. Norway in general has a number of activities focused on the strengthening of a student exchange with the international environment. Can you say a few words about this exchange, and how it benefits the nation and regions such as Stavanger?

A: For Norwegian students, funding from the State Education Loan Fund is crucial for opportunities to study abroad. The Norwegian funding is perhaps the best in the world, and gives the student the opportunity to expand the horizons of his or her own academic interests and ambitions.

“Internationalization at home” is a slogan for us.
I have been concerned with strengthening the universities and colleges, international ambitions and strategies. In the Ministry’s new internationalization report, we place emphasis on the institution’s role – to seek international cooperation with other excellent institutions with both research and education in context.

Regarding Stavanger, this can be seen as a tool to seek cooperation with universities abroad that have a similar academic profile, and thus strengthen the region’s international position from an academic perspective. The University of Stavanger already has agreements with many partner institutions on all continents, including the North Plus programme within Erasmus, and various bilateral agreements. These give students an extremely broad geographic and academic choice.

Q: Pure basic research is important, but also the process of applied research in bringing the result into active societal use. Can you say a few words about the Ministry’s activities in strengthening partnerships between educational institutions, research organizations, and the business communities in achieving commercialization of R&D breakthroughs in Norway?

A: There are two important measures that have been introduced since I became Minister for Research and Higher Education. The most important thing is that we have introduced a system that provides for a PhD student to have a job in the business sector, with both the government and business sharing the funding equally.

This scheme has been very popular. It started with approximately 10 scholars in 2008, but has now been expanded ten-fold in 2009. The second important measure we’ve introduced is a new and improved funding of research that champions increased collaboration across sectors. This has a special role in assisting the business sector in research. I have also had very good cooperation with both the last two Ministers of Trade and Industry here in this country, and we have conducted a number of other measures. This has resulted in a number of innovations, including the various sectors of Norway’s important maritime industry working together on a comprehensive program to fund professorships and doctorates at Norwegian educational institutions to increase shipping and maritime knowledge, also working globally with other like-minded institutions. Approximately 100 million Norwegian crowns have been committed to making this program a success.

Q: The Stavanger Region is well-known for its activities within the oil industry, but more and more it is known for its research and educational opportunities and expertise where women are continually playing a more central role. Can you say a few words about women researchers and educators as role models for the younger generation who are looking for direction within R& D and higher education?

We see that even though women make up the majority of students, this tendency does not continue up the career ladder within academia. Especially in the technical and medical subjects, we have too few women in leading positions, such as professors. However, there are new figures that show that in 2008 there were about as many women as men who defended their theses in the humanities, social sciences and agricultural/veterinary medicine, and women were also in the majority within medicine and health. In mathematics/science the proportion of women was 37% in 2008, an increase of 4 percentage points from 2007. The technology was the proportion of women 21%- a one percentage point increase.

My task is to find solutions, both financially and in the regulations that stimulate women to take leading positions. I must admit that the competition rules of the EU, which we are bound to, have made this work complicated and time consuming. My ambition is to establish arrangements that promote women in top posts in academia. In order to build a knowledgeable society, we must find the optimal way to work with the talents and skills of the people. By including both women and men, innovation and creativity is enhanced, and diversity becomes the norm. I am especially impressed and inspired by women who forge new ways to be researchers in a modern knowledge society, and these female role models are a key to show young girls what is possible.

By including both women and men within R&D, innovation and creativity is enhanced, and diversity becomes the norm.

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