SWEDEN: More investment favours older universities

Sweden is bucking the trend for austerity measures in higher education by increasing investment. But the older, more established universities will get a greater share of the extra spending at the expense of newer universities, especially in research.

The government recently reported that Sweden will reach 4% of gross national product (GNP) invested in higher education and research before 2020, up from 3.6% today. It said SEK50.1 billion (US$7.5 billion) was invested in the sector in 2008, more than the GNP of some countries.

Jan Bjørklund (pictured), Sweden's Minister for Education and Vice-Prime Minister, said that the government's research policy was to invest in excellence.

"We have to look beyond the short-time handling of the [economic] crisis and ask how shall we move forward not only next year, but over the coming decades," he said in an article in the daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

"The goal is that Sweden not only shall be a country investing strongly in research, but also a country that is world-leading in selected research areas."

But another report has warned that the de facto division between older, more established universities and newer universities and university colleges is counterproductive for innovation in higher education in Sweden, and that the focus on excellence is strangulating research at less favoured universities. The implication is that 40% of Swedish students are less exposed to research-based teaching.

The report claims that the government policy for higher education is leading to the creation of a two-tier system, with older, established universities getting significantly more resources, notably in research, than newer universities and university colleges.

Mats Benner of Lund University, Bjørn Stensaker of the Norwegian Institute for Studies in Research and Higher Education and Ingrid Unemar-Öst of Orebro University, argue that over the past decade the new universities have been starved of research money and currently suffer a loss of interest from the government.

"Higher education policy in Sweden today is totally directed towards the older universities and the work to give these an international star position," they argue. "Today's higher education policy is too focused on excellence, competition and the dream of a Swedish Nobel prize."

The report finds that out of SEK19.4 billion for basic teaching, 39% is allocated to the 20 newer universities and university colleges. Since they account for 41% of the total number of students, they get roughly their fair share of the teaching resources.

But when it comes to research funding, these 20 institutions receive only about SEK3.3 billion, or 12% of the total resources allocated for research, both from the government and external sources.

This means that students at the older, established universities are receiving research-based teaching founded on more than seven times the research resources of the newer universities and university colleges.

The report discusses how this imbalance can be redressed, but does not deliver any concrete proposals.

Just before the economic crisis hit in 2007-08, parliament endorsed a proposal significantly to increase investments in higher education and research up to 2012.

In total, SEK22 billion was allocated to higher education teaching and SEK28 billion to doctoral training and research. In 2008, there were 348,000 students at 39 Swedish public higher education institutions and 12 private institutions, with 17,000 PhD students registered and 24,000 professors and teachers employed.

The expansion has made Swedish universities important governmental organisations in local communities. For example, Lund University in south Sweden is a large employer with 35,000 researchers, teachers and other personnel, in addition to its 46,000 students.

Politicians, trade unions and researchers have now started a discussion on the extent to which this huge investment is value for money. The issue was also raised during the election campaign last autumn. The National Audit Office (Riksrevisionen), or NAO, has since 2007 been carrying out a series of performance audits concerning higher education and research.

Reports from Swedish higher education institutions reveal that the total amount of unused funding within the university sector has increased 74% in real terms since 1998. At the end of 2009 the volume of unused research funding amounted to SEK 12.8 billion (US$1.9 billion), compared to the SEK29.7 billion total actually spent on research projects and PhD education by Swedish institutions in 2009.

The NAO, in a report published this week, has recommended that the government gives the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Swedish Research Council a mandate to develop methods for measuring effectiveness and productivity in the higher education sector.

Gudrun Antemar, the national Auditor General, said: "More universities and university colleges can use their resources more effectively. That will give better student results and lead to more research results being published."

The government intends to instruct the research councils to distribute the 2011 research allocations to institutions in larger portions than in the past, to prevent researchers having to apply over and over again for small sums of research money.