Norway’s egalitarian attitude to most things has rarely been viewed in a negative light. The national insistence upon democracy and equality (although at times irritatingly self-congratulatory) is an inspiring sentiment for a country. Especially, for a rich one – the Norwegians could have just hoarded all the oil money and run off into the Norwegian woods eating pølse and vaffler, whilst refusing to help any struggling minorities. Yet they didn’t, and although the new government may be posing a threat to this attitude, Norway has created one of the largest welfare systems in the world. Even as someone coming from a relatively liberal place like England, the rhetoric around welfare is refreshing.
Inevitably, this attitude manifests itself within other social areas of Norway, particularly its education system. Whilst the Norwegian government has plenty to spend on creating the best education system possible (if the marble pillars outside the library are testament to anything), the University of Oslo, the biggest university in Norway, is only rated 185th in the world by The Times Higher Education. Norway has the tools, not to mention the money, to become one of the best in the world, but it’s not. If employing the best academics and offering research grants is doable, then where exactly is Norway going wrong?
The attitude to learning, particularly when it comes to the humanities, is a problem. In a society set up to benefit the largest number of people rather than the privileged few, entry into university is undemanding. Although this system may be best for a society with education inequality lower down (see England’s unforgivable perpetualisation of the private school system), Norway’s school system is equal enough to allow it to be more selective when it comes to university education.
At the risk of making even more generalising statements about the Norwegian community, their total lack of competitiveness bodes badly for an education system that needs people to aspire and fight for the best they can achieve. Students are reticent to argue in order to avoid conflicting in their views. Unfortunately for a subject like English Literature or History that requires frequent critical analyses, often at the expense of fellow students, this attitude creates a fruitless environment for work.
Indeed, the University of Oslo even struggles to find teachers for its humanities department. A conversation with a masters student exposed the sheer desperation of the Norwegian system, after he has been employed to teach irrespective of his perhaps inexperience in the subject. After all, he has only been studying English for 4 years, only one year more than some of the students in the class. The informal nature of employing staff who are not quite up to scratch, and the desperation that has lead UiO to be put in this position must say something about the education system. What exactly is to blame for the dire lack of teaching staff in certain departments?
It is truth universally acknowledged that teaching can be irrevocably dull if the students aren’t interested. Teaching is a fulfilling career, but only if you are around students who want to learn, and with this fact we have highlighted one of the painful truths about the Norwegian education system: whilst more demanding subjects like medicine or law may draw more ambitions students (as they are more difficult to gain entry to at UiO), subjects like English or History are full of clever Norwegian who aren’t fulfilling their potential, because of a cultural reluctance to challenge and engage. So academics don’t want to come and teach. Compared to the English University system, the system it is less demanding, with fewer students willing to take risks and contribute in class.
Norway’s total defiance towards creating a combative environment in all areas of Norwegian culture is admirable but flawed. This egalitarian attitude to learning means although many are able to have a higher education, the standard is low. Students need to fight the Nordic urge for everyone to be equal when it comes to education, as the classroom is a place of critical thinking, not ignorant equality.
By Ruby Lott-Lavigna
Originally published for The Moose in October 2013