Sylvi Listhaug, the Norwegian Minister of Immigration and Integration, was given a comprehensive evaluation of programme used to welcome refugees and immigrants to Norway on 1 November. Fafo research director Anne Britt Djuve delivered the report. (Photo: Ida Kvittingen)

Helping refugees integrate through work

Norwegian authorities are pouring money into teaching Norwegian to asylum seekers, but many immigrants fail to learn the language. A new report says less time in the classroom may be the answer.

Countries across the developed world, Norway among them, are struggling to find ways to help migrants and refugees integrate into their new home countries and cultures.

Recently the Norwegian Minister of Immigration and Integration, Sylvi Listhaug, was given a 300-page report evaluating Norway’s existing NOK 17 billion programme for helping newly arrived refugees and immigrants settle in the country.

The more-than 27,000 refugees and immigrants in the two-year introductory programme are given instruction in Norwegian language and culture.

In spite of the large sums of money being spent, much about the programme does not work, according to Fafo, the independent research foundation that conducted the assessment.

“There is a great deal of room for improvement. Some municipalities are doing much better than others,” says Anne Britt Djuve, research director at Fafo and one of the authors of the report. The evaluation was commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security.

Many municipalities far from goal

The government’s goal is for 70 per cent of participants to be either employed or pursuing studies in the year after they finish the introductory programme.

The Fafo assessment shows that some of the most central provisions of the programme don’t work well. In short, both the language and workplace training have had little effect on opening the door for immigrants in the labour market.

The problem is both that municipalities vary in the degree to which they make use of the tools available, and also that the quality of the tools themselves is very varied, says Djuve.

For example, immigrants are supposed to be given the chance to practice their Norwegian in real situations.

"Some people work very well and have good work internship placements, while others find themselves in the basement of a grocery store stacking boxes, and you don’t learn much Norwegian from that,” she said.

Nor do they always get that much out of the Norwegian language education that is offered. Among participants with little or no previous education, after four years, only 20 per cent have managed to pass a Norwegian exam at a level that indicates that they can hold everyday conversations.

Minister Sylvi Listhaug believes these results are "catastrophic".

"I now believe that there is a need for major changes, including a reorganization of the programme, with completely different requirements for results and quality," for both participants and municipalities, she said.

Not more of the same

The researchers found that it helps to have a language teacher who has been educated in teaching Norwegian as a second language. Listhaug is considering imposing specific requirements for teacher expertise, but is still weighing the alternatives.

Fafo researchers believe the authorities need to take a wholly different approach than they do now. Young immigrants with high education often perform well in the workplace. However, many adults with little or no education struggle to pass the Norwegian language exam and may have difficulty getting a job.

"Do these participants need more of the same type of Norwegian education, or do they need something completely different?" Djuve asked when she presented the report at the Justice and Public Safety Ministry on 1 November.

Individuals who pass the standard Norwegian language test are more likely to be employed. But researchers do not know if their language education is the reason. It may be that those who have jobs have an easier time passing the language test.

Costly solutions

Every fifth participant in the Norwegian programme has limited education. Djuve believes society must equip them for an increasingly demanding Norwegian workforce.

"There are still some unskilled jobs, so you may be able to get work at a store or in a hotel. But there are fewer and fewer of these jobs, so in the future, we believe that we have to ensure that people have formal expertise if they are going to be firmly embedded in the Norwegian working world,” Djuve said.

Djuve thinks it’s important to start early on with educating participants who need it, while they are still in the introductory programme. Some of the municipalities have already tested this idea. They have lifted requirements that refugees have a primary or lower secondary school education before taking up training as a healthcare worker.

But this type of integrated approach that combines vocational training, Norwegian language education and basic skills takes four years.

"It's a great offering, but very expensive. So it's hard to see that this will become the norm,” said Kristian Rose Tronstad.

Trondstad is a researcher at Oslo and Akershus University College (HiOA) and recognizes many of the Fafo report findings from his own and other’s research.

More work, less class time

“There’s not much new news in this report. It’s not surprising that the measures have a limited effect,” he says, with the proviso that he has not yet read the entire report.

Tronstad is impressed by the comprehensive nature of the Fafo report, which not only looked at an evaluation that was conducted in 2015, after the current programme had been in place for 10 years, but also looked at what had happened to participants who started in the programme in 2007, 2009 and 2011. Researchers also surveyed municipal employees and interviewed programme participants. 

But he would like to know more about what participants themselves think of the programme. The Fafo evaluation involved interviews with 30 participants. Tronstad and his colleagues at HiOA, in cooperation with KS, have recently interviewed 1100 refugees.

"Participants are consistently pleased with the introductory programme, but they are least satisfied with their ability to influence their individual plan. Many do not even know that they are entitled to do this,” Tronstad said.

Trondstad thinks the programme needs to focus more on getting immigrants and refugees into the workforce, with less time spent on Norwegian lessons. His own research shows that teaching Norwegian in a classroom has limited success. Practicing Norwegian in a workplace internship works best, he said.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at

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