A Nordic Master’s Programme is a Win-Win Situation for Universities

When Nordic universities collaborate on a joint programme, lecturers and administrative staff gain a broad perspective on their area of expertise and an international network. It paves the way for research and transnational collaboration – and the students flourish.

Text and photos by Joan Rask

“I now know myself better as a teacher, and now I actually know how to coordinate a programme like this – really interesting, but also challenging at times.” So says Elias Pekkola, lecturer at University of Tampere. He is the coordinator of the university’s new joint programme.

“It has given me a lot of extra work, but, mostly, it has been ’a lesson for life’ and it has absolutely been worth it,” he says.

Elias Pekkola
One of the reasons for the extra work is that he, in collaboration with colleagues from other Nordic universities, is tasked with identifying the best of the existing master’s programmes and create an entirely new joint Nordic Master’s programme. It requires collaboration, development, and taking a stance on content and methods.

“We’re developing the courses together and discussing the teaching and feedback together. When we started the programme, we had almost ten teachers and professors from different countries sitting down together for a whole day, because we also discussed assignments, group projects, and so on,” explains Elias Pekkola.

He has been working within his national programme in Finland for about ten years. And during this time, he has never experienced something like this.

“It's kind of forcing you to work harder and providing time... because it is so interesting and you have to develop something completely new before people are flying in,” he says.

Joint degree in collaboration

Siv Oltedal, professor of Social Work at the University of Stavanger, recognises the picture he paints. She is among the initiators of the joint degree programme ‘Nordic Master in Social Work and Welfare’ in collaboration with Aalborg University in Denmark, Umeå University in Sweden and University of Stavanger.

"It is very exciting for those of us who are working on it. You learn what other countries do, and you gain new insights into what you do yourself,” she says.

She experiences that the group at the university working on the joint Nordic master’s degree receives full credit for their effort. The students namely come from all over the world and that offers a new international environment.

“It’s good that both we and the students have something in common to discuss – what’s ’Nordic’ becomes a sort of reference point,” says Siv Oltedal.

Expectations for the future

Both Elias Pekkola and Siv Oltedal are pioneers within their area. Both programmes are right now being taught for the first time. Siv Oltedal have sent her first-year students to Umeå in Sweden, and she is currently recruiting the next group of students. This time there are more Nordic participants compared to last time when both places had only a few Nordic participants. That took some of the collaboration coordinators by surprise, but not Stig Helleren, Head of Administration at the Department of Social Studies, University of Stavanger.

“Those of us working within this area know that it attracts people from all over the world. People come because they want to understand the Nordic welfare model. I think that is really good,” he says.

In fact, he hopes for a few more Nordic students.

”In Norway, candidates who have completed their bachelor degree in social studies usually go straight into a job, then they start a family and settle down – those students we surely can’t convince to go abroad,” he says.

In a long-term perspective, both new master’s programmes expect more Nordic applicants, but inherent structures in the Nordic countries make it difficult. Elias Pekkola explains that the students in Finland almost automatically become affiliated with a specific master’s degree, and in Denmark, the students can only spend a maximum of a year abroad. But those types of challenges exist to be resolved, according to Stig Helleren and Siv Oltedal.

“You must think in terms of possibilities, not restrictions. There are lots of challenges to be resolved. We explore possible actions and have always had the will to resolve the issues. We devise a Plan B – and a Plan C,” says Siv Oltedal while she, with her hands, illustrates how the issues can be grouped together.

She flashes a big smile.

“I’m quite optimistic that we’re off to a good start; we have a steady number of applicants, and I believe the programme will develop well. It simultaneously creates the potential for new research with more direct access to academia in both Denmark and Sweden,” she says.

Nordic for beginners

The research element is multidimensional, and students on these programmes are actually part of a research project. As part of this research, they were, for example, asked what the best thing about the joint Nordic master’s programme is.

“They first and foremost point to the international network and the discussion forum they’ve become part of. They were very content – both on an academic and a personal level,” says Siv Oltedal who have had one-on-one conversations with all students at the end of first semester in Stavanger.

Critics might problematize the fact that Nordic countries pay for the international students’ education. Namely, the programme ‘Nordic Master’ is financed partly by the Nordic Council of Ministers. The other part is financed by the universities. Stig Helleren does not experience the situation as an issue, rather he views the internationalisation as a positive for the Nordic countries.

Stig Helleren

“It develops us as a University and gives us a broader perspective. With a professional degree, you must know your national context in order to utilise your degree, and if we, as an institute, focused on just that, it would make us short-sighted and nationally biased,” he says.

The internationalisation is an important focal point for the university in Stavanger.

“That’s the way in which we can achieve the internationalisation – by inviting students to come here. We get entirely different types of questions and an entirely different dynamic when students from all corners of the world come here,” says Stig Helleren.

Both Siv Oltedal and Stig Helleren are very happy by the good work that has evolved between the Nordic lecturers and the international students.

Siv Oltedal has done research in her area for twenty years, and even she has learned a lot.

“You receive criticism of your own country and the way you think, which you might be blind to but others can see. Sometimes new ideas come about, and I’ll often be inspired to use these in different contexts. It’s incredibly fascinating,” she says.

Elias Pekkola sees a similar thing happening in Finland.

“It promotes an international outlook. Finland is a very small country, and though most readings are in English for the Finnish Public Administration degree, the teaching is still in Finnish – and often with a national context and national topics…” he says.

He experiences that Finnish students underestimate the benefits of going abroad. He thinks the pros outweigh the cons.

“Many Finnish students are so family-oriented. They think that they have to get a career as fast as possible, and I’m trying to say to them: ‘Trust me! You’ll develop much more going abroad or joining a Nordic Master’,” he says.

He admits that there is an additional benefit for universities offering the Nordic Master.

“I hope part of the students will go onto PhD studies. To me, this is also an excellent way of recruiting talented people, because we can see them for two years, and we learn that these people can travel and integrate themselves in different situations and adapt to different societies,” says Elias Pekkola.

Four tips for universities wanting to develop a Nordic Master

  • Identify an enthusiast. There should be at least one lecturer with great expertise and desire to do the project

  • Ensure support from management. Both administrative support but also support for lecturers

  • Too many cooks spoil the broth. Form a small group of three universities during the first years

  • Don’t underestimate administrative work. Ensure dedicated local administrative resources


Joint degree 

A degree awarded by at least two universities in different countries after a successful completion of a joint programme. As an attestation of the degree, the graduate receives one joint diploma signed by all degree awarding universities. The degree is recognised in the degree awarding countries just like a normal (national) degree would be.

The most common form of joint programme degree awarding in the Nordic countries is still a so called Double Degree.  This is defined as degrees awarded by two (Double) or more (Multiple) universities in different countries after a successful completion of a joint programme. As an attestation of the degree, the graduate receives two or more diplomas from each degree awarding university. The degrees are separately and nationally recognised.

Nordic Master

The degree is completed in at least two Nordic countries, typically more. The students go abroad and live in each country for one semester and do so with fellow students throughout their degree. The students pay for their stay etc. Nordic Master can provide support for the stay abroad and it can optionally be supplemented with schemes such as the Erasmus+ programme etc.

Level of Education

The Nordic Master is a two-year full-time graduate degree. The entry requirement is a bachelor degree.

NB! Denmark: 

Please note that master’s level education is called a ‘kandidat’ in Denmark.

More information:


• Elias Pekkola: Nordic Master Programme in Innovative Governance and Public Management

• Siv Oltedal and Stig Helleren: Nordic Master Programme in Social Work and Welfare

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