The University of Oslo and Norway's independence

In 1811, the Danish King stopped opposing what he thought would be an institution that promoted political separatism. He was right! The University would come to play an immeasurable role in Norway's liberation.

Illustration: Hanne B. Utigard, University of Oslo

In 1768, Bishop Gunnerus presented his plans for a separate Norwegian university. Gunnerus believed that even though Norway had rich supplies of natural resources, it would be doomed to remain poor and under foreign domination, unless it had its own university.

Gunnerus was concerned that Norwegians had to go to Denmark to buy even the most basic technical equipment, for example, windmill parts. A Norwegian university would provide Norway with its own academic expertise, enabling it to become more self-sufficient. Gunnerus was ahead of his time, and the political situation prevented his proposal from being implemented.

King Frederik concedes

In 1811, after a successful campaign to persuade King Frederik VI of Denmark to stop opposing the establishment of universities in Norway, it was finally decided that Norway could have its first university. In 1813, the Royal Frederik University opened in Christiania, as Oslo was called then, which at the time was still a small provincial town in a country without a capital. Only one year later, things would change dramatically. Norway declared its independence and adopted its own constitution in 1814.

Helped ensure independence

Unfortunately, Norway's independence was short lived. The Peace Treaty of Kiel after the Napoleonic Wars forced the King of Denmark–Norway to cede Norway to the King of Sweden. Nevertheless, Norway did now have its own constitution, its own government and a university. The new university was a key institution that helped to ensure Norway political and cultural independence under the union with Sweden, as Norwegians feared they would be dominated by Sweden at every turn. The new independent Norwegian university also became an important symbol of the growing nationalism.

Building the new elite

The main function of the university was to educate a new elite class of civil servants. The sovereign state – albeit in a union with Sweden – needed educated people to run it. Not only did it need a large number of government officials, it also needed politicians and ministers – and quickly!

At the heart of the nation-building

The University set about undertaking a large-scale mapping of the country: its culture, languages, history and traditions. University people attempted to resolve a great many of the practical tasks that were necessary to develop the infrastructure required by a modern society. After the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905, the University played a crucial role in educating scientifically trained men and women to perform expert tasks in a society that was increasingly focusing on ensuring all its citizens a good life in security and dignity. Education, health care and systematic administration were areas that turned to the University for knowledge, advice and staff. The University changed its name to the University of Oslo in 1939 and remained the only university in Norway until 1946.

Series of articles

This article is the first of several in a series to mark the University of Oslo's bicentennial, highlighting the role the institution has played in Norwegian society.

By By Cecilie Grønntun
Published Sep. 8, 2011 3:18 PM