Sweden's coalition government is to tackle a sharp drop in student numbers by allocating more funding to universities where there is a strong demand for places, forcing less popular institutions to seek mergers to survive, Education Minister Jan Björklund (pictured) has warned.
In an article in the leading newspaper Dagens Nyheter, Björklund said that "demography is now on our side for promoting university mergers", given an expected 25% drop in the 20-year-old age cohort over the next six years.
"We intend to make student choices of universities an important factor in the channeling of resources, so that those universities with a high demand for study places will receive more funding compared to those institutions that experience less such demand," he said.
Institutions less in demand would face many challenges, he warned, adding that it was in their interest to seek mergers with larger, research-intensive universities, or with research institutes, to secure their resource base.
But university leaders and higher education experts have warned against making a simplistic assumption that large institutions are better than small ones.
Björklund's article followed the minister's keynote speech at the annual meeting of the Association of Swedish Higher Education, titled "Quality Before Quantity".
In an unprecedented move, the ministry sent a text message to all university college rectors urging them to read the article, titled "University Colleges Need to Merge with Stronger Universities".
Björklund said initiatives for mergers should come from institutions themselves. The government did not intend to take decisions on mergers, but was convinced they would improve quality and strengthen the position of Swedish universities internationally.
"Institutions are facing major challenges that will change the higher education landscape in Sweden," he said.
To facilitate the process, the government has allocated SEK20 million (US$2.6 million) for 2012 and SEK75 million for 2013 to cover the costs of preparing university mergers.
The minister said the government would want to retain higher education opportunities across the country, but these would primarily be in professional training like nursing, teaching or engineering.
Currently there are 37 higher education institutions in Sweden, catering for 440,000 students, a figure that has doubled in the past 20 years. Resources for research are concentrated in 10 institutions.
Björklund said many higher education courses did not have a satisfactory link to research and the goal was that most university professors should have a doctorate and participate actively in research.
"The coalition government now wants to focus on quality, and the first steps were taken [last year] when we instructed the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education to examine all university courses over the next three years and to grade all courses according to a set of quality criteria," he said.
That instruction, which ensured evaluations would be based solely on student results, led to the resignation of Sweden's University Chancellor Anders Flodström, as reported by University World News.
Thomas Blom, acting rector of Karlstad University, which is close to the border with Norway, and Åsa Bergenheim, the incoming rector, said in a joint statement to University World News that while closer cooperation and fusion might be appropriate for some universities it was vital for such a process to take place in a climate of mutual respect.
"The evaluations from the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education demonstrate that larger institutions are not always better than smaller ones," they said.
They added that mergers could enable institutions to share one another's experiences, competence and ideas. "If we manage to do this right, a merger could strengthen teaching and research milieus, relations to the regional society could be broadened and administrative costs could be reduced. And for students a university with several campuses could be of interest, giving more study choices," they said.
"The point, however, is not to become big – but that we shall be good."
Kerstin Norén, rector of Högskolan Vest (University College West) in Trollhättan, told local newspaper TTELA that the minister's article was retelling old myths, such as that university colleges were the weak link in the higher education landscape, when the real problem might be that resourcing was weak.
"Most important to reach high scientific quality are international contacts. The size of the research institution is of less importance," Norén said.
Kåre Bremer, rector of Stockholm University, reminded readers of his blog that Björklund had often said that seven to 10 Swedish university colleges might have to be closed down unless they merged with a stronger research institution.
"Now several discussions are taking place on potential mergers, most of them still more or less informal. Stockholm University is not involved yet in any such discussions," he said.
Lena Adamson, former secretary-general of the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education and now an expert on quality assurance, teaching and learning and entrepreneurship at the European Institute of Technology, told University World News that concentration and good use of resources was important in any business.
But while she agreed with Björklund on the importance of having a "sharp" national quality assurance system, this objective was not being realised.
"Clear quality profiles instead of extensive peer review reports will steer students' choices more effectively than anything else. This will act as an economic driving force for higher education institutions to find their own solutions in improving quality and making good use of their resources," Adamson said.
"When it comes to small institutions collaborating with larger ones, we must not forget that the correlation between size of institution and intense creation of innovations - in the sense of putting good research to use - is not always given. Concentration and good use of resources, yes. But size may not always be the sole dimension to take into consideration here."
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