Lessons from Oslo

Examining social mobility after the establishment of Norway’s first university

Latest presentation

Scandinavian Society for Economic and Social History
26–27 October 2022: Odense, Denmark

Nick Ford
Lund University

Kristin Ranestad
Lund University

Paul Sharp
University of Southern Denmark, CAGE, CEPR


The first Scandinavian universities were established in the fifteenth century. But it was not until 1811 that the first university was established in Norway: what is today the University of Oslo. Prior to this, aspiring Norwegian academics would travel to Copenhagen to study. Many high-status professions in Norwegian society — including in state administration and the church — required university-level qualifications.

The research question we consider is: How did the University of Oslo affect patterns of higher education attainment in the years immediately after its establishment? Of particular interest is what changes were induced in the types of families (in terms of socioeconomic status and educational level) from which students came.

We propose a difference-in-difference analysis, comparing:

  • student cohorts from Denmark and Norway before and after the opening of the University of Oslo
  • changes in the composition of the Norwegian student cohort, exploiting differences in the proximity to a university once the University of Oslo opened.

Our empirical approach is underpinned by three key factors. First, the timing of the establishment of the University of Oslo was not determined by Norway itself — and thus can be considered exogenous. Second, the University of Oslo was modelled closely on the University of Copenhagen and offered substantially the same courses — the new university did not offer instruction in new skills. Third, political circumstances acted to cleanly separate the Danish and Norwegian cohorts after the University of Oslo opened: Norwegians no longer moved to Copenhagen to study, and Danes did not study in Oslo.