The University of Agder will continue to strengthen its position as an important collaborative partner, knowledge developer and competence centre in the next rector's term.
On Monday, it became clear that incumbent rector Sunniva Whittaker and vice-rector Hans Kjetil Lysgård would become UiA's rector team from August 2023 to July 2027, with Whittaker as rector and Lysgård as pro-rector. They were the only team to run, making it a walkover win.
“It will be nice to have another period. A lot was started and has been done in the current period, but I feel that there is more that I can do and develop further. It will also be nice to have Hans Kjetil along as pro-rector. We are stronger together, it is said. I think that applies to us too,” says Sunniva Whittaker.
Both Whittaker and Lysgård pointed out that it won’t be for another half a year or so before they take up their recently won positions. They have, therefore, not yet decided on how exactly they will work with each other. But they are certain that they will focus on collaborating in the tasks that they undertake.
“Hans Kjetil is knowledgeable in his fields, and I am in mine. We also know a lot about the same things. So, we complement each other in a good way. And it is this synergy that we want to build on, says Whittaker.
Both are aware that the current rector's term has focused strongly on several internal matters. One of these issues has been the allocation of research time to the university's academic staff, which was adopted last year. The principles behind the allocation had remained unchanged and unassessed since 2010.
The new principles are based on an active prioritisation of R&D time at each individual faculty, department and employee, where the main goal is to create a better framework for, among other things, the individual's research.
“This creates more security than before and a framework around our research. It also produces better research. There will be an increased focus going forward to highlight and bring out all the good research that is carried out here at UiA, as well as to collaborate more on research and development with national and international partners,” says Lysgård.
It is the expressed goal of the incoming rector's office that the university’s development of research and knowledge benefits the business and working life in the region.
Currently, UiA places a great deal of emphasis on getting good and valuable areas of co-operation that are linked to key players in Agder, up and running. Examples here are GCE Node, IT cluster Digin, Visit Sørlandet, Sørlandet Hospital, the municipalities, and Felles løft Agder. The latter covers business life throughout Agder, is represented by the region's business clusters and business parks, and focused on education and skills development, research and innovation collaboration, and joint visibility.
“The goal now is to strengthen this. It is also an expressed goal in the university's strategic plan to develop collaboration through co-creation, particularly within our interdisciplinary focus areas. This is what we are good at, and we will carry on with this.”
The rector emphasises that the focus in this respect is both on the students and on the region.
“The students get this again through teaching that is among the best in the country, up-to-date and relevant, and have the opportunity to write their bachelor's and master's theses in collaboration with both business and working life. And the working and business world will benefit as we continue to develop into an even more important partner in connection with, for example, innovation and the development of new industries,” she says.
Both Whittaker and Lysgård predict that there will be an increased focus on new ways of teaching this spring and perhaps an even stronger focus in the coming rector's term – and not just at UiA, but in the entire university and college sector.
“We all saw how the covid epidemic meant that we had to widely adopt the use of digital learning platforms quickly. At the same time, artificial intelligence is now pushing forward at full speed into all that concerns education and learning. Just think of the AI chatbot chatGPT that can write articles, analyse poems and work creatively. How should we deal with this? And how will artificial intelligence change teaching and tests and exams? These are central questions that we all must deal with going forward,” says Lysgård.
Another challenge Whittaker and Lysgård see coming is the fight for students. The number of registered students in higher education has increased systematically for many years. The number of registered students has also increased more than twice as fast as the population in the last ten years.
This is a development many believe will not continue. The reason is the size of the cohorts of young people. Statistics Norway's projection of population growth in Norway states that growth will decrease. This means that the higher education sector must adapt to a future where the youth cohorts do not grow until 2040 at the earliest.
“We will probably also notice this. If the number of students is to increase, then an increasing proportion of young people must apply for higher education. Other parts of the population may have to account for the increase going forward. In a future with a shortage of labour in several industries, it is conceivable that young people may have more opportunities. Our job will therefore also be to ensure that UiA is so relevant that they pick us.”
First and foremost, it is important to take care of the good study programmes and education that UiA has to offer. In addition, Whittaker and Lysgård see opportunities in target groups other than ordinary students.
“The key word here is lifelong learning. Continuing education is therefore something we believe will receive noticeably more attention in the next rector's term," says Lysgård.
The incoming rector's office believes that UiA will face challenges in the coming rector's term, when it comes to the financing of higher education. Among other things, the Minister of Research and Higher Education Ola Borten Moe (SP) has promised a "total makeover" of the higher education sector in 2023. His main message is that the economic situation has made it necessary for funds that are reallocated to the sector to be used efficiently. He has put forward 15 points to ensure this.
The government has also started work on a vision statement for higher education, which will come before Easter. This will reveal what type of education should be prioritised and reallocated in Norway.
“Both initiatives will have an impact on the future, with some exceptions, such as tuition fees for foreign students - which we don't like - we don't know how it will affect us. It will become clearer in the spring. But we may have to take into account that the growth in the state budget's items relating to the universities will be affected, and thus also us,” says Whittaker.
In the current rector's term, UiA has applied to establish a Master's degree in Law and a professional degree in psychology. Both have so far received the thumbs down from the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education, NOKUT. However, Whittaker and Lysgård hope that this can turn around during the next rector's term.
“We will continue to work to get both studies. The Master's degree in Law is important, among other things, because it will give the region and our students a fuller range of law degrees (bachelor’s and master’s) in Southern Norway. And when it comes to professional studies in psychology, this is particularly important because there is a real need for psychologists in our part of the country, especially in mental health and in the specialist health service," says Lysgård.
Today, the rector's office runs UiA according to the university's adopted strategic plan, where academic freedom, sustainability and diversity, as well as the co-creation of knowledge, are central. The plan is applicable until 2024. In other words, the work on a new strategic plan will start in the transition to the upcoming rector's term.
“Of course, we cannot say what the new plan will contain. It is far too early. It is also the university board that actually adopts this,” says Sunniva Whittaker.
“But what we can say is that many elements in today's plan have worked well. If we are to single out one thing, it would probably be that we are satisfied with how co-creation is underway where we are involved in the region. Perhaps we will be able to expand on this, so that UiA is able to assert itself more in both national and international arenas in future. One thing is certain in any case - future challenges require collaboration where solutions are created together, both regionally, nationally and internationally,” says Sunniva Whittaker.