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New Year Interview with Rector Kathrine Skretting

Kathrine Skretting, Rector of INN University's. (Photo: Noorit Larsen / INN University)

 - This year I will still have to focus on the organizational aspect, but also on culture. Ticking the different boxes is, of course, important, but so is creating a living organism, an identity, a sense of belonging to the new institution, says INN University Rector Kathrine Skretting. (Photo: Noorit Larsen / INN University) 

On 1. January 2017, Lillehammer University College and Hedmark University of Applied Sciences have merged into Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences (INN University). One year later, we have met with Rector Kathrine Skretting to sum up an eventful year and hear what awaits the institution on the road ahead.

- You were appointed as the Rector of INN University in the middle of a challenging merger process, how has navigating the merger been?

It has been extremely exciting. Being entrusted with building a whole new institution is something I have never done before – indeed, not many people have. Then again, a handful of people have done it, and I have learned a lot from people who have experienced similar processes; the western part of Norway, the former Gjøvik University College becoming a part of NTNU, among others. Still, it is challenging to create a single institution out of two that differ quite a bit in various areas, so I have – and still am – learning a lot. There is an immense amount of factors to consider, weigh, and plan, at all stages of such process. I am entirely convinced that the merger has strengthened both institutions in creating one strong unit.

As the landscape of higher education institutions has changed in Norway – through government policy – it became apparent that LUC was a bit too small to realize its potential. Hedmark, too, felt they would gain from a merger. Now, INN University has a much greater opportunity to make an impact, to positively affect the region, and be a considerable force in higher education in Norway.

- You were the Rector of one of the former institutions that merged into INN University. What challenges did you face, in making the transition to being the head of a much larger institution consisting of your former institution as well?

One has to be very conscious of being the head of the single new institution as a whole. I have worked for some time at the former LUC, and I still feel like I know Lillehammer better than I do our Hedmark part, but I learn a lot every day. There are also a lot of commonalities between Norwegian higher education institutions in general – similar policies, similar rules, the same laws, similar structure and culture.

Study programmes are obviously not identical, but follow all the aforementioned points of similarity in conduct. Being familiar with Norwegian higher education has been a solid basis for getting to know the new institution. I continuously try to spend as much time as I can at our Hedmark campuses, to truly get to know the whole institution as much as possible. 

- As you have mentioned, 2017 has been a transitional year, in which the two separate organizations have learned how to become one unified organization. What’s in store for 2018?

Indeed, 2017 was a transitional year, but for the most part the two old organizations existed side by side. I was the first to be appointed in a leadership position in the new institution, but in 2017 we still had two directors of human resources, two vice-rectors for research, two vice-rectors for education, two leading officers for internationalisering, etc. However, as of today there is only one administrative leadership position that is not yet in office – the director of infrastructure and digitalization. But she has been offered the position, and should take office in March. Each faculty has been appointed a single dean, and there is a single vice-rector for each of the existing fields.

The process of switching to operating as one single unit is not complete, but we have come a long way. Some organizational questions still need to be solved, but from 1st January 2018, the new organization is working as one. This year I will still have to focus on the organizational aspect, but also on culture. Ticking the different boxes is, of course, important, but so is creating a living organism, an identity, a sense of belonging to the new institution. This kind of process takes time, and we have to be conscious about it.  

- There is much talk about the Institution’s university ambitions. About “switching to a higher gear on several fronts” how will this be felt on the ground?

Becoming a university is a common goal to virtually everybody within the institution. This ambition has also gained enthusiastic support from regional actors – both political and business sector. I can say wholeheartedly that this is a good thing, a shared objective. This state of elevated activity is felt throughout the institution. Becoming a university would make international collaboration easier, even from the narrow perspective of clarity regarding our nature – everyone knows what a university is. A university of applied sciences is an ambiguous concept internationally, while the concept “university” has a much more clear-cut definition in regard to the criteria an institution must fulfil in order to be accredited as one. 

From a research volume perspective, we’re doing quite ok. We could certainly be more productive, but our main source of income is teaching. As a result, we need to pay a lot of attention to our study programmes. We are highly effective in this area; different national surveys show that we are doing quite well on that front. Our student satisfaction rates are high, and our students have high success rates – especially at bachelor’s level.  On master’s level we have some delays, but we know this is due to a large percentage of mature students who combine studies and work. We can’t divert resources from education in order to strengthen research, as maintaining our education level is important both to us as an institution and on a national level.

Yet, strengthening research is crucial; we will carry out planned EU Horizon 2020 projects, we have received several grants from the Norwegian Research Council, and we have been gifted a grant from a regional foundation. All these will be helpful in increasing our research volume and contribute towards the university accreditation process.

Another area in which we need to do well is our PhD programmes. We already fulfil the four PhD programmes requirement. However, to be accredited as a university we must also ensure that we fulfil certain productivity requirements. As a rule, this means admitting a minimum of 15 PhD candidates over a five-year period, per programme. For two of our programmes the requirement is that at least five PhD candidates successfully defend their theses every year – or an overall 15 over a three-year period.

The requirements certainly pose a challenge, but our PhD programmes work tirelessly to admit suitable candidates, and all those involved invest much towards ensuring we will succeed in meeting the above goals.

- We want to be stronger as a regional actor, but as noted, have very high international ambitions. How are the two balanced?

That’s an interesting question. As I mentioned, it is vital that we define our profile as an institution. We need to define ourselves a profile that is realistic – something to mirror our strengths, and taking into account our weaknesses. Research, the production of knowledge, needs to be relevant to our region, and done in collaboration with regional actors. We need to be involved in working life – hospitals for instance.

However, it’s important to note that every corner of Europe – indeed, the world – has regions. These regions aim at development, specifically on the regional scale. They need not only to survive, but prosper. Excelling on the regional level while maintaining international collaborations, will potentially benefit both our own region and have an impact on an international level. We’d benefit not only our region, but would also generate knowledge and tools that could be relevant to regions in general. International collaborations utilizing “different sameness” with other regions across the world can be very fruitful to all regions involved. Furthermore, different projects that succeed on a smaller, regional level, could potentially be developed into something bigger that could be implemented on a larger, international level.

- The applied aspect of the research at INN University is a defining characteristic of the institution, with recent grants given to projects such as Decisions and Justifications in Child Protection Services and AMR Diag: A Novel Diagnostic Tool for Sequence Based Prediction of Antimicrobial Resistance. What’s the importance of INN University’s role as a social actor, in your eyes? Where would you want to see it go? How do we ensure that what we do here is relevant in real time, that we don’t only produce competent professionals or meritorious research but set the agenda of the Inland region?

It’s a very important ambition. We will need strong networks; we will need to maintain open dialogue with parties outside our institution. An open dialogue is crucial in order for us to understand the needs of different fields of practice, but also in order to ensure our collaboration partners understand what we can deliver, and what is researchable. Our research needs to be both applicable and with high academic value.

I think we could also benefit from a policy regarding the publication of results that hold a reduced academic impact but may still be useful from a practical, professional perspective. This is also due to the fact that the world needs everyday practical knowledge, not only paradigm-shifting, ground-breaking academic articles on highly theoretical questions. Things such as ideas for improvement, novel ways of organizing – which emerge through experiments, collaborations, discourse, using research methods – can be valuable. On one side of the continuum of new knowledge is the highly theoretical kind, and the other side is the very concrete, applicable, practical kind. We should engage with the entire continuum, in a way appropriate to our focus areas – educating nurses, teachers, social workers, among others. We shouldn’t fear promoting the highly hands-on kind of knowledge.

In a small nation such as Norway, there’s no room for two Universities of Oslo. We need to establish our identity in our unique niche.

- What characterizes INN University graduates? What unique qualities do they take with them from INN university?

The first part is perhaps not original or unique to us, but I’d like them to be brave and innovative. They need to acquire knowledge but also the tools to seek knowledge on their own, the drive to think differently and renew. Skills like networking, teamwork, balancing between confidence and adaptability, are valuable to any graduate.

All the above needs to be coupled with the identity of an institution of our kind, which has traditionally been educating practical professions such as nurses, teachers, social workers, administrators, economists, tourism professionals – all very much in need on a regional level.

Naturally, we need to encourage our students to do their very best, to immerse themselves, to go all in. We need to set certain academic and certain practical challenges to prepare our students for working life. The level can never prompt an accusation of "it’s so easy, anyone can simply do it."