Global exchanges that do not leave rural regions behind
The TeRRItoria journey in Norway started with concerns about the negative effects of centralisation and globalisation, more specifically the long-standing development in which more remote regions – of which there are many in Norway – are losing young people to the few, more centrally located regions, among others because of an increasingly centralized structure in the higher education sector. To be able to survive global competition it makes sense for societies to gather their best and brightest in one place. In close proximity, research, innovation, and business can generate beneficial synergies, not the least for their hosting cities and regions. Yet for a region that is far away from these centers, the flip side of this coin is all kinds of vicious circles and eventually, a slow death. More recently, many countries have become sensitised to this dark side of centralisation and globalisation. However, the larger, global trend towards urbanisation seems to continue. In Norway, partly due to many years of active policies that have aimed at strengthening what is here called “the districts“, centralisation has never been unopposed. But even here, a few years ago the previously intact balance between reproduction rates in cities and rural areas has flipped in favour of cities. More and more regions are losing their youth in alarming rates while a few others are able to keep or even improve on the status quo.
In 2021 a new government won the national elections with decentralisation as one of their programming goals. The Trondelag aims in TeRRItoria, thus, have received new and powerful allies. But how can a little project – even if it is aligned with the government of a small country – influence a long-standing, global trend? After three years of collaboration between Norway’s largest university, the regional county council and representatives of local businesses, one of the central observations from the project is that we have had time and resources to reflect together on what divides and unites us. This reflection was aided by systematically gathering experiences from actors that have for many years worked to make research-based education relevant for more remotely located regions, through interviews with students about their ambitions and dreams, and through experiments with new recruitment strategies. At first glance, universities and remote regions seem to exist in very different universes. Norwegian researchers publish mostly in English to reach an international audience and many feel more at home at a conference hotel in Vancouver than in a remote village located three-hours away by driving from their workplace. Inhabitants of remote regions are deeply rooted in their familial or informal networks, they speak with a local dialect and love the closeness to “their” nature. However, a closer look reveals many instances where these stereotypes do not apply. NTNU staff found many researchers who, particularly in their teaching, preferred to work with locally relevant topics. Furthermore, considerable parts of the rural population are closely connected to the rest of the world through family networks and own experiences from travelling or living elsewhere. Obviously, there are researchers that could not be bothered to look into topics of local and regional relevance, and we received reports from local businesses that do not trust “outsiders” enough to employ them. But these dividing elements are irrelevant when we want to establish productive exchanges. By collecting, categorising, synthesising, and experimenting with opportunities for exchange, NTNU and Trondelag city council staff have contributed to a globalisation that does not leave rural regions behind.