Higher education institutions should be allowed to determine allocation of government funding. Freedom in research. Academia has sent a clear message to the politicians. But the politicians want to see considerably more adaptation to the labor market, especially regarding professional development. Everyone agrees on the need for long-term solutions. There is widespread support for a comprehensive higher education and research bill that covers seven years.
Other suggestions: that the regional university colleges that meet immediate labor market needs should have higher visibility, that post-secondary vocational education and training should serve as a bridge and that it would be better for the government’s targeted research investments to go to infrastructure rather than projects.
There is a greatly expanded higher education sector while the labor market has high numbers of unfilled positions. Many ask, what are we doing wrong? Access to competencies and matching issues were also discussed at Almedalen, including at the seminar “The Swedish Approach to Knowledge – Is the Education Problem Due to How Knowledge is Valued?” The seminar presented a gloomy picture of the entire Swedish education chain. It was arranged by the Entrepreneurship Forum and the Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN).
Magnus Henrekson, professor of economics and president of IFN, argued that Swedish primary and lower-secondary education has become increasingly ineffective. There is neither a resource problem nor too few teachers, he maintained, but schools need to focus more on basic skills and student proficiency. This will allow creative abilities to emerge over time.
He criticizes instruction in which pupils are largely expected to gather facts, an unnecessarily time-consuming process, and that knowledge is placed in a societal context early on. This primarily benefits children from strong socio-economically backgrounds who are accustomed to discourse.
Magnus Henrekson: “When all the subjects contain elements of social studies, it’s as if they were made for pupils from homes where they are motivated to study. This causes schools to perpetuate social-economic differences.”
Johan Eklund, a professor at Blekinge Institute of Technology (BTH) and managing director of the Swedish Entrepreneurship Forum, called attention to the low economic returns that higher education generally provides in Sweden. We rank at the bottom within the OECD. Today’s students do not see education as an investment, he maintains, but regard themselves as consumers of education.
“Higher education becomes neither good for society nor for the individual, and those who most often choose to study the wrong subjects are people from weaker socio-economic backgrounds.”
Eklund advocates clearer incentives for Sweden’s higher education institutions to provide training for the existing labor market.
Åsa Fahlén, chair of the National Union of Teachers in Sweden, also pointed to the view of knowledge and the teacher’s role as important reasons for a third of all students who begin primary and lower-secondary school not receiving upper-secondary qualifications.
“You have to set about it in the right way and give children a certain amount of knowledge and then teach them to assess probabilities based on this knowledge. Without basic knowledge, you can’t even know in which situations you should apply source criticism, for example. When you already start analyzing in the early years and have a teacher who drifts around as a supervisor, that works only for those who are already proficient, those with large vocabularies. The government needs to change its policy documents and take greater responsibility for ensuring an equivalent educaiton for all.”
Long-term access to competencies increasingly important
“Every fourth recruitment attempt is unsuccessful.” With these words, Andreas Åström, the head of economic policy at Almega, the largest employers’ organization for the Swedish services sector, began the seminar “Sweden Grinds to a Halt Without Professional Development” (arranged by the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees, TCO).
“Universities and university colleges are not providing education that meets the demands of the labor market, but rather are allowing student preferences to control the range of courses offered. We would like to see more education at universities for those who have already entered the labor market.”
Peter Eriksson, minister for housing and digital development (The Greens), also wants upper-secondary schools and universities to be more oriented toward the labor market.
“That’s absolutely necessary if Sweden is not to be left behind, especially in digitization. I’m afraid that we’re underestimating the need for change.”
Andreas Åström would like to see more education at universities for those who are already in the work force, and Peter Eriksson favors greater support for employers to provide professional development.
The present funding allocation system is a stumbling block, according to Pam Fredman, former vice-chancellor of the University of Gothenburg and special analyst of university governance, including funding allocation (STRUTEN, Governance and Resource Investigation, U 2017:05).
“It is currently not designed for individual courses – professional development. We want greater flexibility to meet this need. But it’s also important that contract education does now crowd out other types of education.
Erik Bengtzboe, an education policy spokesperson for the Moderate party, also felt that another reimbursement model for courses is needed.
“A greater focus on quality rather than quantity. We also see that many enroll in courses without taking the final exam. This means the higher education institution is not compensated. At the same time, it’s important not to interfere with the private education sector.”
Helene Hellmark Knutsson, minister for higher education and research (Social Democrats) feels that change is needed to ensure higher education is available to everyone throughout their lives – but it must be a long-term solution.
“I agree with Pam Fredman that universities are not the place for half-hearted and temporary solutions.”
Discussions about access to competencies in Almedalen focused on university colleges and universities. Helene Odenjung, 1st party chair (Liberal party), municipal commissioner and member of the University Board of Education in Gothenburg, pointed out that it is not self-evident that university colleges and universities should meet the immediate needs of the labor market. Instead she highlighted higher vocational education as a proven path, particularly in meeting local and regional needs.
“The individual must not lose sight of his or her own needs and responsibilities.”
– Helene Odenjung (Liberal party)
Access to competencies – a threat to academic freedom in research and education?
This difficult and eternal question was the theme of the seminar “Universities of the Future – Threatened or More Important Than Ever” (Uppsala University).
Karolinska Institutet President Ole Petter Ottersen argued that academic freedom to teach and do research is limited in Sweden, referring to Terrence Karran’s study in Policy Reviews in Higher Education (2017).
“Lack of freedom makes Sweden less appealing for young researchers.”
He also cited tuition fees for students from outside of the European Union as a problem. “This creates a customer mindset, which reduces the idea of broad perspectives. We need students from all over the world, internationalization, so that we don’t have a Europeanized university system.”
Stephen Hwang, vice-chancellor of Halmstad University, feels that policies have to be able to assume that funding for higher education institutions provides a benefit and that knowledge must be free from political control.“Controlling research doesn’t work. There has to be a balance between a long-term and short-term approach, and policy has to reflect this.”
At the same time, he ranked access to competencies first, ahead of new knowledge for society, with the reservation that university colleges provide more regional benefits with access to competencies and professional education and training. Higher education institutions such as Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm University, however, have another role, with more focus on basic research.
Astrid Söderbergh Widding, Stockholm University’s president, pointed to the need for greater overlap of political logic and research logic. SciLifeLab serves as a good example of a political initiative that succeeded by means of infrastructure investments. “What’s most important is for universities and politicians to know their roles and missions to meet social challenges. Universities also need to understand politics.”
Erik Bengtzboenoted: “We may have an incorrect image of universities being rather autonomous. The spirt of STRUTEN is that there will be more control. Can there be an autonomy reform? Maybe a review is in order?”
Christer Nylander, education policy spokesperson (Liberal party): “It needs to be simpler for universities, the media and cultural institutions, with more long-term governance. But they require different types of governance. There’s a difference between educating preschool teachers for 3 years and basic research.
What do the students think?
The Swedish National Union of Students (SFS) and the Association of Swedish Higher Education (SUHF) organized the seminar “Consequences of the Governance and Resource Study – What Do Students Think?”
“It’s difficult to try new things when the labor market’s current needs determine what is offered,” said Pam Fredman. “But universities should be allowed to decide how they allocate direct government funding.”
She also pointed out that the most important role of universities is preparing students to enter society. When Erik Bengtzboe asked his colleague on the Education Committee, Thomas Strand (Social Democrats), however, if the government focused on quantity over quantity, the answer was yes.
“We have quality issues at the undergraduate level. We’ve increased resources to the humanities and social sciences to improve quality, but we acknowledge that there has been more focus on research. More money is needed for undergraduate education.”
SFS Chair Jacob Adamowicz believes that research has historically had the highest priority and that students are fighting an uphill battle. Vice-Chancellor Eva Wiberg pointed out that it’s already possible to reallocate government funding, but also that we want to focus on research to get better teachers and a better link to research.
Student and university representatives and politicians agreed that governance needs to be more long term and that it’s worth considering combining higher education and research legislation and making these cover seven years instead of four years. They also felt that the elimination of mandatory membership in the student unions has made them more dependent on higher education institutions.
MARGARETA GUSTAFSSON KUBISTA
ANNA von PORAT