Multiculturalism and the ideology of sameness- can that
co-exist in higher education?
First I want to thank the European Access Network for giving me the
opportunity to speak at this conference. I feel really honoured.
The title of my address is “Multiculturalism and the ideology of
sameness- can that co-exist in higher education?”
The address consists of three main issues.
First I will define multiculturalism and the ideology of sameness.
A brief description of the situation at Oslo University College will follow,
and finally I will describe some of the strategies developed at the
University College to enhance student retention.
When I elaborate multiculturalism in this context, I will use the concept of
ethnic minority students. By ethnic minority students, I mean students
who have another language than Norwegian as their mother tongue or
have parents that speak another language at home.
Norway has traditionally been regarded as a country where diversity is
more or less non existent; both in political documents and in people’s
minds. The whole unique idea of a social democratic system is built on
the belief that everybody must have the same rights and duties. That
everybody must have the same possibility to achieve their goals in life. It
is this very conception of sameness I will contest in this address.
At this moment I think it is necessary to explain that “likehetsideologi” -
the ideology of sameness- in Norway is both in the academic world as
well as in ordinary peoples’ language, a natural way of describing the
When immigrants and refugees in Norway are asked about Norwegian
integration politics, they answer using almost the same words. “ Come as
you are, but become similar to us”.
Hence the ideology of sameness indicates similarity and not equality.
This belief of sameness also characterizes the educational system.
From 1889 the educational system has been based on the idea of public
schooling and state financing. Wherever children live in Norway, either
up in the mountains, in the fjords or in the cities, and independent of their
class or ethnic identity, they have the same curriculum and learn the
This ideology of sameness continues to be visual in all pedagogical
thinking in Norway, from primary school up to university level.
Certainly we find an ongoing debate about private schools as well. But in
peoples minds education is still equal with public schools, public colleges
and public universities financed by the state.
Before I go any further, let me give you a more concrete picture of the
situation at Oslo University College. There are about 1000 employees
and nearly 10.000 students dispersed on more than 25 bachelor
programmes, 8 master programmes and a large number of advanced
courses. So in the Norwegian context it is a rather large institution.
About 12 per cent of the students have a non Norwegian ethnic
background. You will find these students primarily in programmes for
engineering and in some of the healthcare programmes (bioengineering,
pharmacy, and radiography). Up to 40 per cent of the students in these
programmes have backgrounds from other parts of the world, mostly
In other programmes there are only students with Norwegian ethnic
background. This is problematic, but I will not linger on it here.
In 1999 the Board at Oslo University College decided to formulate a
strategy to become what was named a “multicultural University College”.
To oblige this strategy money and positions were found and experts
were hired. So today The Centre for Multicultural and International
studies is as a part of the University College. The Centre was
established in 1999 and has been my working place since then. We are
today more or less twenty people engaged with different kinds of
The Centre has three main focuses:
1. We offer advanced studies both in the multicultural and the
2. We are a competence centre in the multicultural field in Norway
and have a responsibility towards the Norwegian society
We are responsible to raise the level of competence in multicultural
issues inside the University College, both in the teachers as well as
in the students.
In the last couple of years we have experienced changes in the political
picture of higher education. These have led to a need for new strategies
that would keep students in a so called normal period of studying.
We noticed the first change in 2001 when a new financial system of
higher education was introduced. Earlier the institutions were financed
according to the number of students each programme was allotted. Now
the institutions are paid by the number of credits the students produce.
Oslo University College looses around 6 million crowns (about 700 000
euro) a year on the ethnic minority students alone, because their learning
process is either prolonged or they quit the programmes.
Last year we also had another major change when The Ministry of
Education presented a new reform for higher education in Norway, called
“The reform of quality”. Part of this reform is changing the teaching
methods towards a more dialogical pedagogical approach than what is
common in Norway today. This is empirically a pedagogical method that
excludes some of the ethnic minority students. This refers especially to
those students which come from different learning traditions.
To sum up, Oslo University College is today systematically attempting to
meet challenges in the multicultural field.
The major challenges are:
A conversion in ideology, from the ideology of sameness to the
ideology of equality.
A new financial system that favours student credits in stead of
A pedagogical reform that put demands on the students. A more
individual, independent and active approach to learning. This
approach is new both to students with non Norwegian ethnic
backgrounds and students with Norwegian ethnic backgrounds.
I will now turn to how the Oslo University College and the Centre for
Multicultural and International studies meet these challenges.
Since its establishment in 1999 the Centre has tested out different kinds
of approaches to obtain the Boards’ aim of becoming a multicultural
University College. Some of these attempts have been successes,
others have been less successful.
Our first approach was to develop a support and service system to
students with ethnic minority backgrounds. This support and service
system was built on a direct personal contact with the individual student.
The students worked closely with experts on how to study in higher
education and how to handle the academic language.
Evaluations on this approach showed that we only reached the clever
students, those who already handled the learning situation very well.
These students saw the offer as a possibility to become even more
clever. The students we wanted to reach, the students with the difficulties
both in language and in professional development never contacted the
Centre for support. In interviews which followed, most of them answered
that it was problematic enough being a student, so the thought of having
one more commitment to take care of, scared them away.
In other words, when we started out, the idea was that the students
should adjust to the University Colleges’ way of thinking and that the
Centre would accommodate them. This idea as you can see is based on
the ideology of sameness.
As a result of the empirical data, another approach developed. Here the
main responsibility for the students was transferred from the Centre to
the programmes and the teachers themselves. The teachers closest to
the students should offer service and support directly to his or her
To be able to transfer these tasks the employees at the Centre had to
cooperate with the teachers at the different programmes. They took and
take part in discussions about how to change the curriculum, syllabus,
question papers, the methods of teaching, types of exams and so on.
The issue is to develop programmes which are more able to handle
We know from the law of nature that everything has a reverse side. The
reverse side of this cooperation between the Centre and the teachers at
programmes turned out to be a tendency for the teachers to withdraw
from situations where the multicultural were the issue and leave that to
the employees at the Centre. One might say that the Centre employees
functioned as a kind of substitute or an alibi when multicultural questions
What do I imply when I make these reflections about the teachers at the
different programmes? Do I accuse them of being against change? No,
far from it. At this point I think it is necessary to return to the beginning of
this address, where I gave a brief presentation of the history and
ideology of the Norwegian way of thinking.
The ideology of sameness is followed by a lack of handling diversity.
A side effect of this is that we in Norway are used to consider anything
out of the ordinary as an issue for specialists. So when we meet
something that we are not used to, we transfer it to some specialized
institution or person, instead of handling it ourselves. And diversity
among the students is for many of us that type of an issue which we feel
needs special competence.
We feel insecure in the situation and therefore feel more competent in
transferring the problem or the situation to others. That way we do not
ignore the problem or the situation, but deal with it the way we are used
to and which suits us best.
Realizing how difficult it is to obtain the aim of being a multicultural
institution and changing the employees’ way of thinking about the
student group, the Board at the Oslo University College decided to use
resources to start a major project for competence building in the
This project called “Competence building courses” is developed as an
attempt to make diversity and multiculturalism an issue for everyone
employed at the University College and not just an issue for those with a
special interest in it. This project started in 2003 and will last for three
and a half-year. The aim of this project is that all the 1000 employees at
Oslo University College shall have some knowledge about the
challenges in the multicultural field and how to meet these.
The project is a major attempt to convert the ideology of sameness into
an ideology of equality. An attempt to build an institution where there is
space for different ways of thinking, different ways of learning, different
ways of finding solutions and so on.
The structure for these courses is two-fold:
1. A basis module for all employees, also those who never are in touch
2. An advanced module for employees who work in direct contact with
The basis module is meant to be a process with gatherings and “in
The employees are divided in groups according to type of work and
which programme they are employed at.
The gatherings are constituted as a mixture of lectures and discussions.
In the “in between periods” the participants are supposed to work with
approaches to the multicultural field. These approaches are chosen by
the groups themselves in co-operation with representatives from the
Centre. Empirical data illustrates that different groups have different
approaches closest to their hearts. The project is based on the idea that
change of attitudes and ways of thinking is easiest if people are
interested in the issues they are discussing.
Each group of participants also has a process guide from their own
department, who functions both as a guide and a professional resource.
The main items that are explored are the following:
A multicultural learning community- what is it and how to generate
The leading discourses on multiculturalism in the Oslo University
College – what are they and how do they influence the way of
thinking and handling diversity?
Ones own participation in a multicultural learning community- what
are my attitudes, values, norms and the consequences of these?
Handling diversity- how can diversity thinking be integrated in all
strategy documents, curriculum, and other texts concerning
Strategies to find hidden resources in the students as well as in the
The advanced module has the same structure and themes as the basis
module, but is discussing the questions more thoroughly. Here the main
issue is how to obtain coherence between the primary goals of the
institution, the actions of each employee, curriculum, how teaching is
organised, teaching methods, learning resources and educational
products of different types. The objective is to make diversity thinking as
natural as gender thinking is today in Norway.
The University College and the Centre hope that it will be possible to
cover all departments, programmes and employees during the project
period. The objective is that by the end of the project period, the
multicultural field and discussions concerning working in a multicultural
university college, will become part of all standard programmes for new-
employees at the University College.
To sum up this part of the address, the main strategy is to develop and
strengthen the competence in handling diversity throughout the whole
University College. But we still think that, when it is demanded, special or
individual approaches shall be developed and given. So today, the
Centre offers all the three above described approaches to the students,
departments and the programmes.
Individual students will still find a service and support system at the
Centre they can use if they feel the need for that. The Centre is still in
continuous discussions with teachers in different programmes on how to
make the programmes more adapt to handle diversity. And the
competence building courses have started.
Another approach developed at Oslo University College in the process of
becoming a multicultural educational institution is the research
The research programmes consist of one large quantitative and a
number of smaller qualitative approaches to the multicultural field.
The largest and most systematically research programme is called
“Student data” This programme collected questionnaire data from 2300
ethnic minority and majority students in their first and third year in 2000,
2001 and 2003. The questionnaire consists of around 100 questions and
has a section about the multicultural issues. The data is analyzed and
published in rapports, which provides us with a continuous overview of
how both the ethnic majority and minority students experience their lives
as students at Oslo University College.
Another research approach is internal and external evaluations of the
Centre and its activities. Employees and students are essential
informants in these evaluations, as well as official representatives from
the Ministries and other co-operating institutions.
An independent large external evaluation of how the Centre of
Multicultural and International Studies obliges its mandate is taking place
The Oslo University College has also developed a staff career
development programme at post-Master level. One of the programmes’
priority fields is projects concerning multicultural issues at the University
There are also continuously research projects in the multicultural field by
individual employees at the University College.
With the above in mind, one might say that Oslo University College is still
is the beginning of the process to obtain its aim as a multicultural
educational institution. The thought may have crossed your minds in
listening to me: “Is it possible to change the way of thinking in a large
institution like Oslo University College over a period of three and a half
I believe, we at the University College have asked the same question a
billion times. We know that it is a great challenge, but we do need to start
the process. Luckily the institution is not on its own in this work. The
Government and the relevant Ministries support our process both
economically and morally.
Today we also see a change in Norway. There is a tendency in the
community towards a change in the ideology of sameness. It is hopefully
moving slowly towards an ideology of equality.
Persons with non Norwegian ethnic background constitute approximately
6 per cent of the population. They have mainly taken up residence
around Oslo and are integrated as a part of everyday life in the capital.
It is not viable to cling to the idea of sameness, when everyday realities
demonstrate that this idea is inaccurate. The time has come when we
have to change our attitudes towards and understanding of the
With these last phrases, phrases I guess most of you will recognize, I
would like to thank you for your attention and look forward to comments.