Row over ministry meddling and quality assurance blow

The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, or ENQA, has given the Swedish Agency for Higher Education two years to sort out anomalies in the country’s quality assurance system.

The development has sparked criticism in Sweden of the education ministry both for its previous decision to introduce learning outcomes-based assessment and for undermining higher education autonomy.

ENQA found that the current system of quality assurance in Sweden was only fully compliant with three out of 14 criteria for full ENQA membership.

This is ironic given that Sweden was one of the founders of ENQA in 2000, working for coordination of quality assurance standards in Europe as an increasingly important task during the Bologna process.

The worst-case scenario is that students who have taken undergraduate degrees in Sweden will now have difficulty getting admission to postgraduate studies in other countries.

The ENQA decision has whipped up a storm of negative comments by higher education representatives, who said they had seen the problem coming, and that the association’s ruling was embarrassing and posed a threat to the reputation of Swedish higher education.

Former Swedish Agency for Higher Education (HSV) secretary general Lena Adamson, a member of the Council of Europe and the European Institute of Technology, told University World News that the Swedish education ministry had been well informed as far back as 2009, and repeatedly thereafter, about the pitfalls of “introducing this system based solely on achieved learning outcomes – an uninformed interpretation of the learning outcome paradigm”.

Adamson continued: “However, for reasons unknown, they chose to completely ignore this information and at the same time also to ignore the opinions of university chancellors and many others from the Swedish higher education sector.

“This is the government who claims that university autonomy is an all-important issue.”

She said there was great interest within European higher education in the latest ENQA decision, because “there has been a worry that other governments uncritically will adopt the Swedish system with its seductive rhetoric about ‘results’.

“ENQA’s decision effectively eliminates this worry.”

Former university chancellor and former HSV head Professor Anders Flodström, who left the agency in 2012 over the ministry's proposal to evaluate universities according to student performance and to use this performance as a reward mechanism for budgetary allocations, told University World News:

“The ENQA critique is of course of fundamental importance, mostly to learn that politicians make catastrophic decisions when they impose these types of hands-on solutions. I am ashamed that this happened in Sweden and truly worried about what this will cause the Swedish higher education system.”

Kåre Bremer, rector of Stockholm University, wrote on his blog: “ENQA is stating that the present system of HSV, which almost fully is based on the quality of students’ written bachelor or master theses, does not fulfil the requirements” of ESG – the European Standard Guidelines.

ENQA, in its criticism of HSV, had suggested that the higher education agency “could easily accommodate the learning outcomes approach while at the same time respecting the standards and guidelines”.

Bremer concluded: “I hope that the decision of the ENQA will lead to the development of a new system, because we must have that.”

The Swedish Union of Students said in a press release that ENQA was “confirming the critique of the student union since the government in 2008 started planning the system”.

And Swedish Social Democratic education spokesperson and previous minister Ibrahim Baylan said in parliament on 19 September: “It is extremely serious that the value and reputation of Swedish higher education now is devalued on the international scene.”

He asked: “How is Higher Education Minister Jan Björklund going to act to re-establish confidence in higher education in Sweden and make it possible that the Swedish quality assurance system for higher education again will follow suit with European standards?”

A debate in the Swedish parliament is scheduled for 2 October.

In June the Swedish Union of Teachers association reported that Secretary of State of the Ministry of Education Peter Honeth had asked: “Must Sweden follow ENQA’s line, or is it rather European countries that need Sweden as a role model?”

Honeth said in June that it was not necessary for all countries to have the same quality evaluation system, and that “Sweden would survive without being part of ENQA”.

But Honeth has now changed his tune.

In a press release from the education ministry after the ENQA decision, Honeth stated: “The overall focus of our quality assurance system, with the weight on students’ [theses] results is fixed. But it may be necessary to complement this system.”

Honeth said a new body, the University Chancellors Authority (UHÄ), would develop the system so that within two years it would comply with ENQA regulations.

Anders Flodström told University World News: “We now see the results of the first 400 evaluations. It is a lottery based on one single item, theses: in best cases related to the programme and written by the student and not his supervisor; in worst cases, pure plagiarism.

“Excellent programmes, attractive to top students and with good records from the labour market, are deemed ‘not good enough’ and others the reverse.”

Flodström continued: “It is truly a lottery; none of the vice-chancellors has claimed that they know on what grounds these results rest. Still HSV and university homepages publish the results as a given truth.”

The education ministry press release concluded that the government had previously decided that from 1 January 2013 the UHÄ would be established as a new government organisation for quality assurance of higher education.

“They [UHÄ] have been given great autonomy to further develop the system for quality assurance, in collaboration with universities and university colleges”, the press release said.