"A significant reduction in the Norwegian settlement on Svalbard as a result of the loss of jobs in the mining industry undoubtedly does something affecting the level of the Norwegian presence and hence the basis for Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago," the university stated in a letter to the Ministry of Education and Research.
In the letter dated Dec. 18, the university's board and management declares the institution is prepared to take on greater social responsibility for Longyearbyen after the cutbacks at Store Norske.
"This is well thought through," said UNIS Administrative Director Ole Arve Misund in an interview with Svalbardposten. "We would like a doubling within a few years."
The staff at UNIS currently represents about 130 permanent full-time positions. Of those, 111 live and work in Longyearbyen. In addition, there are 220 full-time-equivalent students.
The spring semester started Monday with 126 new students gathering in the large Møysalen auditorium where they were welcomed and received practical information. They also heard about the downsizing at Store Norske and elsewhere in the local community.
"We feel a responsibility for the local community. UNIS is here because the institution has a socially beneficial strategy," Misund said, adding the university is part of the basis for a Norwegian presence in the archipelago.
"Once Store Norske got such a big challenge, it was natural to indicate that we can take on a greater responsibility," he said. "The initiative is being thoroughly discussed by the board."
Will accelerate plans
In November it became clear Store Norske needed to downsize because of low coal prices and huge deficits. The consequences of that downsizing was the focus of the last UNIS board meeting before Christmas. UNIS had previously approved a doubling in size during a 20-year time span, but the board will now accelerate this effort. Misund said he believes it is possible to expand if the government in its role as the university's owner approves. Together with UNIS board Chairwoman Berit Kjeldstad, Misund outlined several specific proposals:
• Doubling offerings: More studies should bring in more staff and students. The studies would primarily take place within current subject areas, but the board is envisioning a broader approach in all areas – particularly Arctic technology. Another example is offering courses about maritime shipping in the Arctic. The letter states the UNIS board is prepared to study a wider range of courses at UNIS if appropriate.
• Faster development of Svalbard Research Park to accommodate more students and staff. The planning of phase three has just started. "An accelerated development of UNIS to accept more social responsibility in supporting Longyearbyen means work with Phase III also must be accelerated," the letter asserts.
• 250 student flats: In addition, the board believes the development of additional student housing should continue. A total of 88 new flats opened last fall, but the letter notes further university development is dependent on accelerated construction of student flats, with a total of 250 new single rooms sought.
The board will also intends to work with Store Norske and private stakeholders on housing issues.
Anne Husebekk, rector at The Arctic University of Norway, has proposed the creation of a three-year engineering program at UNIS to provide an option for former Store Norske employees. A preliminary engineering course that debuted in the fall of 2014 is a good starting point, said Husebekk, who is proposing a cooperative effort between her university, UNIS, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and Narvik University College.
"Now there is yet another window for making decisions," Misund said. "This is linked with the further decisions made at Store Norske."
He said he is anxious about the response from the authorities. They have not yet heard anything from the education ministry.
Bjørn Haugstad, state secretary for the ministry, stated in an e-mail to Svalbardposten that UNIS contributes to a stable, year-round family community in Longyearbyen and the ministry will consider the institution's input.
"It is very positive that UNIS has outlined some possibilities for further investment in research and education," he wrote. "The education ministry will consider those in the government's further discussions about developments in Svalbard."
Store Norske's board of directors has its last meeting Monday before a restructuring plan for the company is unveiled at a press conference in the capital Friday morning.