Is internationalisation like the tumbleweed, NTNU?

- Internationalisation is one of the building blocks of academia and NTNU is a role model for Norwegian higher education in its long-term prioritisation of global partnerships. Let us set an example for our students and take a stand, professor Rolee Aranya argues.

Rolee Aranya received NTNUs Internationalisation Prize for 2022. She encorurages NTNU to take a more proactive position om these matters
Rolee Aranya received NTNUs Internationalisation Prize for 2022. She encorurages NTNU to take a more proactive position om these matters

As I see the year inch closer to the end, I am reminded of the same time last year when preparations were being made for NTNUs Internationalisation Conference. A few months later, I had the pleasure of receiving NTNUs Internationalisation Prize for 2022. A great honour, for which I am very grateful to all my colleagues and the committee that evaluated me. But this year has possibly been the most challenging for the very same purpose for which I was recognized, and I can’t but wonder what the future holds. My recent participation in HK-Dir’s seminar on cooperation with the PANORAMA countries, which the Government has prioritized for research and higher education based cooperation, left me with feeling of dread. Not only was NTNU very sparsely represented at this seminar, the geopolitical uncertainty and the environment of insecurity pervading all cooperation outside of the EEA, made me very unsure of where we stand.

We have seen large sweeping changes in our sector this past year – change in the policy regarding tuition fees for students outside the EEA, restructuring of the Norwegian Research Council, withdrawal of the funding schemes for student mobility and partnerships with the universities in the Global South, changes in the financing system for our education programs, large cuts in financing of NTNUs campus project to name a few.

The impact of these changes is very visible in our classrooms and will be even more so on our campus from next year, when the last group of students with free tuition graduate. In the two-year international masters program, Urban Ecological Planning, that I teach in, there were no students from outside the EEA that joined this year’s class. We have four enrolled students in the 20 places in the program, two of whom have been given exemption for the ca 400.000 NOK/year tuition fees. We have one student from the EU and one Norwegian student. Our study program focusses on sustainable urban development in complex contexts such as in the Global South and has adopted a pedagogical approach of experiential learning. We take our students on a field-based, participatory research driven assignment to the Global South for six to eight weeks, in the first semester.

This has until now been partly financed by partnership projects such as the Utforsk and Norpart from the HK-dir and programs like the current Norhed program administered by Norad. This has enabled us to maintain a large network of relationships with universities, research institutions and NGOs from across the world, thereby giving us a broad base for constantly developing our curriculum and learning from processes of change in broad range of countries in Asia and Africa. Our Alumni at these institutions have been instrumental in keeping the relationships alive. Recognition of our outreach prompted the UN-Habitat to partner with NTNU as one of the first Habitat Partner Universities globally in 2013.

The international network we have through these partnerships, not only links us with the institutions in the South, but also with those institutions in the North that have also collaborated with the same institutions. Our graduate students have been employed in municipalities, consultancies, bi-and multilateral institutions, academia and civil society organizations in Norway and abroad. Every semester me and my colleagues write references, in equal numbers, for our former students that are being interviewed for urban planning jobs in municipalities in Norway and abroad, as PhD scholars in the best universities in the world and jobs in the private sector consultancies. Thus, the network of our partners and our alumni is truly global and as is our practice, but I will come back to that.

Our study program will celebrate its 25-year jubilee next year in 2024. While this is a cause for celebration, we have very little to offer our students and partner institutions from outside the EEA. The funding for international collaboration through partnership in research and education is unpredictable, students from outside the EEA can no longer afford our education and the general reduction in funding for higher education will make it exceedingly difficult to cooperate. But I ask myself the question whether the impact of at least 30-40 years of investment in internationalisation of higher education so ephemeral? Have we made such a big step backwards that it would be impossible to recover? Have we really shrunk the world to the geographical boundaries of the EU? Will these excellent resources in our institution just roll away like the tumbleweed?

So, wither internationalisation now, NTNU?

What gives me some reason to hope are my colleagues at the Department of Architecture and Planning, that come from 18 different nations, within and outside of Europe. Many of us came to NTNU and to Norway, high up in the cold dark North, because despite its remoteness the institution was vibrant and diverse and the nation open to new cultures and opinions. The tolerance and equal opportunity I experienced to develop and prosper was very unlike academic culture in other European countries. Working on a day-to-day basis with the goal for climate neutrality in Trondheim or the actions required for climate adaptation of the world’s most vulnerable migrants in Sub Saharan Africa, the diversity of my colleagues is a strength like no other.

Their diverse experiences and backgrounds give us a much broader basis for engagement with challenges in our profession. There exist research groups all over NTNU that thrive on the best talent recruited very often though the long term partnerships we have invested in as an institution. In a recent report shared with NTNUs board (Årsrapport for 2022: Arbeidsmiljø og arbeidsmiljøutvikling ved NTNU: HMS-rapporten) it is very obvious that staff from international origin is represented in all employee categories, in some cases such as among post docs the share is as high as 76,3% (see below).

But I worry that we will gradually lose this diversity from our offices, as we lose the diversity from our campus. Only recently, my very own Department lost an excellent colleague from Zambia, that quit from a tenured position as Associate Professor. The changing institutional environment and reducing opportunities for internationalisation were contributors to his decision.

So take care of this diversity NTNU – it is our strength!

A second reason that gives me hope is the impact our students have made in their own professional practice. Urban challenges are global and global challenges are exceedingly urban. So while some might argue that our study program has been educating urban planners for the Global South, and now in a situation of resource scarcity, Norway can no longer afford this, the large number of our students (both European and from outside the EEA) that have been recruited by small and large Norwegian municipalities and private consultancies is evidence to the fact that solving global challenges locally will also require a diversity in the workforce in all professions. 

Migration, inequality, exclusion, and climate change related vulnerability are parts of a complex picture that cities all over the world will have to address. Our Alumni have had the opportunity to learn from their peers that have experienced and address these challenges in diverse urban contexts. This gives them an advantage that a mono-cultural classroom could not have afforded. It gives me hope that we have already educated these agents of change and they will contribute to the innovation sorely needed in addressing global urban challenges. These future leaders will make an impact in workforces in Norway and beyond.

So NTNU, keep in touch with our Alumni around the world. They are future agents of change!

And in the end, I can only have hope and faith in the agency of our current students and colleagues in effectuating change in the sector. A constant expression of outrage from the National Student Organisation (NSO) and student leaders of several higher education institutions and their active engagement in dialogue with politicians must be commended. Students have shown great maturity in their arguments, which demonstrate that they understand that loss of diversity from their classroom is a loss for the internationalisation at home, for those students that are not able to avail the advantage of international mobility. Various colleagues from other universities have engaged in the public debate about the cumulative effect of the change in policies in our sector on internationalisation and consequently the loss of quality of higher education in Norway. 

My hope is that this debate will stay alive as more of the long term impacts become visible. And in a nation built on the values of equality and felleskap (community), even critical voices will be heard and inform policy, or the change thereof. And that is where I have hope in NTNU, Norway’s biggest university. Let us set an example for our students and take a stand. Internationalisation is one of the building blocks of academia and NTNU is a role model for Norwegian higher education in its long-term prioritization of global partnerships. And even though we are engaged in tackling the small and large crises in our sector, our focus on partnerships can not be a victim. We will need these partnerships to emerge from the crises and to maintain NTNUs position as a global institution.

So NTNU, exercise your agency as an institution. Take a stand!