Conference Summary 2014
A Scandinavian Tale
Marianne Høva Rustberggard
University of Oslo, Norway
Scandinavia is a region comprised of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Denmark, Norway and Sweden cooperate with other countries in Europe through the European Higher Education Area established through the Bologna Process, a series of ministerial meetings and agreements named after its first meeting at the University of Bologna in 1999.
Across Scandinavia, the majority of universities are state-run and charge no tuition fees. Most students do seek educational loans for housing and food, etc. Most universities and college universities have a student body, often named “council”, “parliament” or “union”. These councils play a political role in local student issues. There are also national student organizations, one per country, addressing issues of concern to students across that country.
The term “ombuds” started in Sweden, then to Denmark and Norway. In Scandinavia, there are a variety of ombuds: consumer, patient, children, equality and anti-discrimination etc. In Denmark, “ombuds” is a protected title.
In Sweden, the “Parliamentary Ombudsman” has existed since 1713. The majority of higher education institutions have “studentombud” for students and PhD candidates. But for two exceptions, the Studentombud is hired by the student unions. These are not to be confused with student safety representatives (“studentskyddsombud”) which are required by law.
In Denmark, the Parliamentary Ombudsman was established in 1953. In 2010, the University of Copenhagen was rocked by the Penkowa case in which a neuroscientist, whose research involved and affected several graduate students, was convicted of “deliberate scientific malpractice”. Subsequently and in 2013, a “Studenterambassadoer” was established at the University of Copenhagen, hired by and from outside the university, serving students, PhD candidates and student employees.
In Norway, the Parliamentary Ombudsman has existed since 1962. A “studentombud” had been proposed as early as 1958, but it was in 2013 that the “Studentombud” was established at the University of Oslo (UiO) at the request of the students, serving only students. The UiO Studentombud, the first in the country, was hired by and from outside the University.
The Studentombud at the UiO is an independent support person whose task is to give students advice and assistance in cases where students have taken up, wish to or are considering taking up issues connected to their studies. The Studentombud sees that students’ cases are dealt with appropriately and correctly, and that the students’ rights are safeguarded. The Studentombud assists in ensuring that cases are resolved as close as possible to their point of origin, at the lowest level possible.
Working with the Studentombud is voluntary. The Studentombud advises students on alternatives, but the students choose the direction they will take for themselves. The Studentombud may offer to assist in resolving a case if the ombudsperson finds potential, but the student can decline.
The Studentombud does not represent any particular student but may be an anonymous channel for whistleblowing. The Studentombud may raise an issue as whistleblowing on her own initiative. Likewise, she may point out errors or weaknesses in the system, and address matters regarding the legal protection of students at the University on her own initiative. The Studentombud is one of very few University bodies that has direct access to the University Board, without having to go through the administration.
In Scandinavia students and student organizations have been very important in the establishment and proliferation of ombudsperson offices in higher education. In Sweden, students have strong investment in the office, often as the ombudsperson’s employer. In Denmark, the university learned from the Penkowa case that it did not treat students the way they wanted, and established the office. In Norway the first office was a result of an initiative from the Student Parliament at the University of Oslo, and in the fall of 2013 the Norwegian Student Organisation decided that “every student in Norway should have access to a “studentombud.” This led to more local initiatives from student parliaments at universities and college universities around Norway on getting a studentombud at their university or college university.
Across Scandinavia, our offices are similar in the issues addressed and the populations served, our ability to address cases on our own initiative, our lack of authority to make decisions, and the public reports we provide. We differ in the length of time our offices have been in place and number of ombuds, where we are organizationally placed, the resources available to us, and how we handle disciplinary cases.