Norway fires research council board after overspending claims

Research minister shocks sector with purge at top of supposedly profligate funder 

May 13, 2022
Fired man carrying box
Source: iStock

Norway’s research community is reeling after a tough-talking research minister fired the entire executive board of the country’s main research funder. 

The surprise move by Ola Borten Moe came after public auditors gave the Research Council of Norway a clean bill of health in April. 

“This was an absolutely necessary change, the research council has major financial problems,” Mr Moe told Times Higher Education. “We needed a board with a different competence to address the financial problems the research council is currently facing.” 

In a statement, the ministry said that the council had estimated it would lose NKr1.9 billion (£158 million) by the end of 2023 and NKr2.9 billion by the end of 2024 if no measures were taken. 

The issues stem from a historic budget surplus, the ministry said, which the council had been politically pressured to spend, a policy which had in recent years led to a serious overshoot. 

In a joint statement, the board disputed the ministry’s account, saying the figures it had given “do not show the real financial situation”. 

It said its over-commitment of funding was “at the request of the ministry and in what we have perceived as full understanding and acceptance of the way this is done. We register that there is now a change of course in this area.” 

The 11-strong board had included Mette Halskov Hansen, a vice-rector at the University of Oslo, and Pinar Heggernes, a pro-rector at the University of Bergen.  

“I was quite surprised with this dramatic decision, even though I talked to the responsible minister a month ago and I knew he had serious problems, but I was just surprised he chose this solution,” said Lars Holden, chair of Norway’s Association of Research Institutes. 

“This happened without any dialogue with the higher education sector and we remain quite worried about the future implications of this decision, particularly because the government has announced they will be reducing funds [for] the research council in years to come,” said Sunniva Whittaker, rector of the University of Agder and chair of Universities Norway. 

Mr Moe said that he would appoint a new board “not…to change research policy, but to gain control of a serious financial situation in the research council”.

“My goal is for the consequences for the research and innovation environments to be as manageable as possible, but they will feel the impact of this. It is unfortunate for the many talented research environments we have in Norway that we have ended up in this situation,” he said. 

Curt Rice, rector of Oslo Metropolitan University, said that Mr Moe had “from the very start, been clear on communicating that he thinks the higher education sector is a little bit too free spending, and that has come up most visibly in connection with building projects”.

“My own university finished a veterinary sciences building just in the nick of time before he showed up,” he added.

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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