as the slow but irreversible merging of the fair Nordic summer into
a darker and crisper Nordic autumn, the horrors of student admissions
into institutions of higher education begin in August. To the prospective
new students, the horrors consist simply in not being admitted to
their preferred school - being offered, for example, a place at the
Finnmark College of Aquaculture when what they really wanted was to
become a doctor. To the teaching staff nationwide, the horrors consist
in the student numbers, which seem to grow wildly and uncontrollably
The four universities, in particular, now announce that they have
reached their level of saturation. Many departments cannot, for sound
reasons, increase their number of students. If they did, standards
would inevitably decline, and even if they were offered additional
funding, it is in many cases becoming increasingly difficult to find
qualified teaching staff.
These problems are temporary, the politicians tell us, and in a few
years, the pressure will for demographic reasons diminish. That may
well be the case. But there is a growing feeling, not least among
teachers at colleges and universities, that the politicians no longer
have an educational policy. If they did, the shortage of student places
would not have been most critical in the professional studies for
which there is still a strong demand in the labour market; and the
humanities and social sciences, where unemployment is already substantial,
would not have ended up as the most overcrowded lines of study.
At the moment, nearly one per cent of the total Norwegian population
are students at the University of Oslo only. We seem to be evolving
into a society where "student" is the most common profession.
It is doubtless true that investment in education is generally a sign
of foresight and planning. But that does not mean that any kind of
education will do.
There is something distinctly unreal about the situation, and it seems
appropriate to approach it by way of a science fiction allegory. Here
In Anthony Burgess' short novel 1985 (published in 1978), the
protagonist is a history lecturer who has just been laid off because
the government has decided that it is by and large unnecessary to
teach a useless subject such as history. Instead, he is offered a
job as an unskilled worker at a chocolate factory. Our hero quickly
realises that not only does his salary increase due to this unexpected
career move; he also enjoys a higher standing in a society which has
grown suspicious of learning and intellectual mumbo-jumbo.
As the title suggests, Burgess' novel was chiefly intended as a fictional
response to Orwell's 1984. Actually, his predictions were less
accurate, and were much more quickly disproven, than were Orwell's.
Above all, Burgess did not realise that Britain was, in the late 1970s,
about to become a postindustrial society, where the growth in information
processing equals the decline in traditional industry. As a matter
of fact, anyone would be hard up to find a job at a chocolate factory
in 1985. On the contrary, if Burgess' protagonist had stayed at his
redbrick university, he would soon have lived through the most spectacular
student explosion since the sixties. In this kind of society, fewer
and fewer persons are employed in manual work, and an increasing proportion
of the working population cut each other's hair, teach each other
German verbs and attend endless and boring meetings.
In a city like Oslo, the transition from industrial to postindustrial
society is expressed powerfully and highly visibly. The old shipyard
at Aker Brygge was closed down in the early eighties, the skeletal
buildings refurbished and re-opened a few years later as a large shopping
and entertainment centre with a slight maritime slant. More to the
point, two of the city's largest breweries have recently been turned
into colleges. Where workers in blue overalls lugged crates of Schous
beer, lecturers in blue jeans now talk about marginal profits and
intercultural communication to impressive crowds of students. Where
sweaty workers used to have coffee and cigarettes, academic books
are now sold by the ton.
Who are the students? I am not arguing that they would necessarily
have been brewery workers rather than students of intercultural communication
in a bygone age. But it is a cause for some alarm that many of them
educate themselves for unemployment and that many of them would indeed
have been unemployed, had the State not found it possible to educate
Incidentally, the factory pipes are still standing erect; but they
only function now is that of smoke-free postmodern decorations.
As a result of the educational explosion, it may soon be difficult
to find an ordinary post as a bureaucrat without a doctorate (in my
parents' youth, you had an education when you were through with secondary
school). The mantra of the Norway of the nineties is kompetanseutvikling ("competence enhancement"), but few ask what kind of competence
Let me ask again: Why do we educate ourselves so intensively and seemingly
aimlessly? Well. Perhaps I don't want to know the answer. But, fortunately,
the securing of jobs for candidates is not the only aim of higher
education. Many of the students who are shooed into faculties of humanities
and social sciences because they would otherwise go unemployed, even
run the risk of becoming decent people with a sound understanding
of the world. Indebted and underprivileged, perhaps, but decent.
©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1996