Experienced minister adds research to her undertakings

Ms Halvorsen recently assumed political responsibility for research and higher education in Norway, adding this to her portfolio as minister for the kindergarten through upper secondary school sector. Now she is in charge of everything from pre-school to top-level research.

Her recent resignation as party leader of the Socialist Left Party made it feasible for her to incorporate Norway’s academia segment under her purview. The objective of the new “superminister” is no less than to achieve a major boost to knowledge in all sectors of the country.

Photo: Bård Gudim Kristin Halvorsen's objective is to achieve a major boost to knowledge in all sectors of the country (Photo: Bård Gudim) Unified perspective on knowledge

While Ms Halvorsen’s predecessor, Minister of Research and Higher Education Tora Aasland, spent a great deal of time out in the field, Kristin Halvorsen must prioritise differently.

“With responsibility for the entire Ministry of Education and Research, it is not possible for me to spend as much time at each institution. However, I have the great advantage of working with the entire Norwegian knowledge sector from a unified perspective,” says Ms Halvorsen, adding that this will be to the benefit of the research sector as a whole.

The new minister is concerned with achieving a consistent approach throughout all levels of education and in all fields, citing the national strategy for natural sciences as a good example of how this can be done.

“The strategy focuses on measures that start at the kindergarten level. All higher education and research is dependent on the foundation provided for children and young adults at an early age,” she maintains.

A societal perspective

In her service as minister for the kindergarten through upper secondary education sector, Kristin Halvorsen has demonstrated a burning passion for education. The question is whether she will show the same zeal for research.

“As I see it, research is not just a sector, but a perspective on society. Our basic precept must be that we need more knowledge and research in all areas of society. As such, all of us with political responsibility in a given sphere must seek to increase knowledge and research in our fields. In several areas today there is far too little research being carried out. Communications/transport and law are two examples.”

Ms Halvorsen intends to make this eminently clear to her government colleagues. Nor will she be relying on encouragement alone as her tool; reprobation will also come into play. “Government members who don’t include research in their thinking and do too little to build knowledge in their spheres should, quite simply, be ashamed of themselves,” she says.

Critique from academia an essential counterweight

The Minister of Education and Research believes that societal development, in many ways, is the best argument for promoting autonomous institutions, independent research and critical thinking. She sees this as a means of stemming the flood of undocumented and manipulative claims presented as historic facts in a growing number of increasingly generic media channels.

“More than ever before, we need a critically-thinking academic community to keep us on our toes. This is a vital element in the development of our democracy and in how robust it proves to be,” Kristin Halvorsen asserts.

Photo: Bård Gudim “With responsibility for the entire Ministry of Education and Research, it is not possible for me to spend as much time at each institution in the way Ms Aasland could. However, I have the great advantage of working with the entire Norwegian knowledge sector from a unified perspective,” says Ms Halvorsen. (Photo: Bård Gudim)

Admissions applications reveal a promising trend

According to Kristin Halvorsen, young people today consider school and education to be more important than previous generations. The number of applicants to institutions of higher education in Norway for the upcoming school year hit a record high. The minister and her ministry colleagues are especially pleased to note that so many more young people than before are seeking to become teachers and engineers – professions of which Norway has serious need.

Ms Halvorsen finds vindication in these climbing numbers: “I’ve been annoyed by all those who say that young people today are just lazing around without choosing an education that society needs. This latest round of school applications demonstrates that our young people actually are guided by the interests of society – not only in order to gain secure employment, but also because they know that it will give them an exciting career.

Politics gained the upper hand

At the beginning of the 1980s, when Kristin Halvorsen herself became a student at the University of Oslo, she had no clear idea as to what her education would be used for. Nor did she end up earning very many credits. After an intermediate subject in Social Education and elementary courses in Criminology politics caught her interest.

At the age of 51, and having recently stepped down after 15 years as party leader, she can boast of six and a half years of service on the coalition government’s steering subcommittee, four years as Minister of Finance and, thus far, three years as Minister of Education. She is living proof that a person can go far without a long, formal education.

An adroit negotiator

Kristin Halvorsen started but never completed her formal higher education. But if anyone from the world of research or higher education complains about having a university drop-out at the helm, then they should also note that they have added a savvy political leader to the team. As the former Minister of Finance, Ms Halvorsen knows which buttons to push in government budget negotiations in order to obtain funds. In this way she is better suited for the job than many of the ministers preceding her.

“That’s right! I do know all the tricks,” she says, with a grin.

But when asked if she intends to use them she turns more serious:

“It’s one thing to be a good negotiator, but the research sector needs to be aware that from now on there will probably be less money available overall. Financial crisis is rife in many countries and here in Norway, too, we are going to find daily life a little tougher. If we want to prevent competition-based sectors from failing we need to limit how much oil money we spend. This is going to make it more challenging to distribute funds among good causes such as research as part of the national budget. Which also means it will be even more important to be skilful in setting political priorities and formulating good arguments.”

The Minister of Education and Research does not wish to divulge what these priorities may comprise. “It will all be made clear in the national budget proposal next autumn and the next government white paper on research coming in 2013. The research sector has ample opportunity to provide their input to both.”

Photo: Bård Gudim Kristin Halvorsen can boast of six and a half years of service on the coalition government’s steering subcommittee, four years as Minister of Finance and, thus far, three years as Minister of Education. (Photo: Bård Gudim)

The EU challenge

Kristin Halvorsen is nonetheless well aware that she needs to act fast in some areas, such as the internationalisation of Norwegian research. She recently received a report on Norway’s affiliation with EU research, which has given the government minister from SV – the “No to EU” party – pause for thought:

“The new EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020, is going to bind a significant portion of European research resources from here on out. This is also going to be a costly programme for Norway; of our current contributions to EU research, we receive a return of only 70 per cent in the form of EU funding to Norwegian researchers. That is not enough.”

“We need to assume that we will be facing tougher times and that our financial flexibility will be constrained. This leads us to question what we get in return on our research collaboration with the EU. Of course, we neither can nor wish to stop it. But it does tie up substantial resources. I am worried that the rest of the Government, in the face of tighter fiscal limits, will argue that our participation is too expensive and leaves too little room for other priorities.”

A great amount of interesting international research is being carried out in environments outside EU’s framework programmes, according to Ms Halvorsen. She hopes to set aside some time to examine the areas in which Norway really needs the EU and what needs may be fulfilled elsewhere.

Inspired

Kristin Halvorsen’s debut as minister in charge of the research and higher education sector took place in March at a large conference in Oslo. Key players from the Norwegian research community were invited to present their input to the coming government white paper on research.

“To be completely honest, I thought I would be meeting a gang of grumpy old men,” she says with a smile. “But that was far from the case. I was very inspired by the meeting. I found that people were forthcoming and truly wanted to share what they were capable of contributing.”

“The sector deserves a lot of credit for pulling together and collaborating on proposals. It was also encouraging to find there was general consensus that we should continue to build upon the current white paper. No one in the audience demanded that I toss it out the window and start from scratch. Research is a long-term affair,” she states.

A shift in viewpoint

Ms Halvorsen concedes that she and her Government colleagues have, on occasion, felt a bit discouraged by the sector in which she now finds herself minister.

“When I began as Minister of Finance in 2005, I felt that the research sector complained regardless of the amount of growth in the research budget. Everyone in the Government knew that no matter how much money was invested in research and higher education, the announcement would be met with dissatisfaction. It was really rather unpleasant to provide money for it.”

The view has changed since then, according to Ms Halvorsen. “Now there is a completely different feeling of trust between political circles and the research and higher education community than was the case a few years ago. Moreover, researchers are becoming increasingly more involved in the public debate. It is of vital importance that they continue to make known what they can contribute with their perspectives and approaches,” she concludes.

Kristin Halvorsen
  • Born: 1960
  • Elementary courses in Criminology and intermediate subject in Social Education
  • Member of the Storting (Norwegian parliament) representing the Socialist Left Party of Norway (from 1989)
  • Leader of the Socialist Left Party of Norway (1997-2012)
  • Minister of Finance (2005-2009)
  • Minister of Education with responsibility for kindergarten, primary and secondary education (from 2009)
  • Minister of Education and Research with additional responsibility for research and higher education (from 2012)

 From Forskning magazine no. 2/2012.

 

 

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