Building Norwegian castles in the air!

Henrik Ibsen. I think he understood human nature somewhat better than I do!

Henrik Ibsen. I think he understood human nature somewhat better than I do!

There is a story that tells how the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, having retired to the city of Oslo, then known as Kristiania, would take a stroll through the city each day, coming to rest at the Grand Café where he would lunch with some of the most famous writers, artists and academics of the city. It is rumoured that he was more than fond of a glass or two of schnapps and the occasional pint of beer, though this may of course be apocryphal as so many legends have grown up around the great dramatist over the years.

I had never anticipated that I would find myself seated in that same café, surrounded by portraits of the great writer, soaking in the atmosphere of this splendid location, but here indeed I am. Following a 3.30 am departure from home for an early morning flight via Amsterdam, and a somewhat fraught meeting at the University of Oslo, I can at last relax for a couple of hours before trying to get some sleep in order to prepare for another early morning flight home tomorrow.

This is only my second visit to Norway, the first was equally short, having crossed the border from Finland, a few hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle to attend the World reindeer racing championships a few years ago (yes, I can assure you that this is true), and what a wonderfully exciting event this was. The first visit was purely recreational, enjoyed as part of a break living amongst the Sami people of Lapland during the crisp snows and frozen waterfalls of an Easter holiday. Today’s visit by contrast was entirely focused upon academic matters, with little by the way of entertaining diversion.

The purpose of this visit was to try and negotiate a means through which a Norwegian and a UK university might work together to support the development of research capacity in the area of inclusive education in Georgia. In order to attempt what was seemingly a straightforward task, eight supposedly intelligent adults sat around a table to make plans. A simple enough task one might imagine. But this was not to be, as the discussions progressed it become increasingly clear that what I had anticipated to be a matter of collaborative planning was developing into a major problem. It became apparent that establishing an agreement with regards to processes and procedures was proving to be more difficult than splitting the atom, finding the missing link or discovering a cure for the common cold all rolled into one!

As the hours rolled by, we reached the typical academic compromise of agreeing to differ. There were undoubtedly solutions to be had, but it would not be the way of university bureaucracy to immediately find them. It was as if Chekhov’s Konstantin had entered the room  to present us all with the body of a freshly killed seagull and that we all needed to find meaning in this apparition. It has long been evident that whenever two academics are gathered together you are assured of at least four opinions, and this was certainly in evidence today. At the end of the meeting there was a consensus that what we needed more than anything else was more discussion. The meeting having reached a predictable unsatisfactory conclusion we packed our papers away, agreed that progress had been made and left to go in various directions wondering what had been achieved.

If a camel is really a horse designed by a committee, it is surprising that universities are not overrun with camels. Whilst international negotiations are never easy, a part of me is convinced that we have created such elaborate approaches to decision making that we no longer know where we are going, and certainly have no idea how to get there. When we discover that a committee is not fulfilling its functions we establish a working party to find out why, and once this working party reports, we appoint a new committee to evaluate its findings. Hence the cycle of bureaucracy continues.

Do I sound frustrated? Maybe just a little. I would put this down to a long day and too much sitting around the debating table. Do I believe a solution will be found? Of course I do, because if I didn’t I would not have stuck with this process for so many years. At the end of the day I am optimistic that the honourable intentions which we all brought to today’s meeting will have the desired outcomes. The consequences of believing otherwise are not to be contemplated.

Perhaps we all need to be prepared to compromise, because as Ibsen reminds us:-

“Castles in the air – they are so easy to take refuge in. And so easy to build too.”