Lessons from Oslo

National universities, access to higher education, and long-run development

Latest presentation

Midway seminar
18 October 2023: Department of Economic History, Lund University

Nick Ford
Lund University

Kristin Ranestad
University of Oslo

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 plans were announced for the first university 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.

We exploit the opening of the University of Oslo in 1813 to investigate the impact of national and local access to higher education. We link the individual-level censuses for Denmark and Norway in 1801 to complete lists of high school graduates. Our empirical approach is a difference-in-difference analysis, where we compare Danish and Norwegian cohorts in the years immediately before and after the new Norwegian university opened.

We find that the probability of entering university increased after 1813 in Norway relative to Denmark, but more so closer to Oslo. This remains when controlling for cohort, and household-background fixed effects, as well as prior interest in founding a Norwegian university, measured using a list of donors from 1811-12. Finally, we consider the impact on subsequent local productivity. Population density in 1865 was higher in parishes which experienced greater increases in the probability of graduating

    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.