Government does about-turn on HE quality assurance

The Swedish government has done an about-turn on quality assurance in higher education, announcing that the current model is to be reviewed. Last weekend 37 rectors - all of the members of the Association of Swedish Higher Education, or SUHF - and Swedish National Union of Students chair Erik Arroy signed an article in Svenska Dagbladet stating: "We are fully capable of undertaking the quality assurance of our degrees and courses ourselves."

The rectors and Arroy said that monitoring quality in Swedish higher education has to be worked out in collaboration with higher education institutions.

The question of the need to revise the current quality assurance system was addressed in parliament in an interpellation this Spring, and in a string of critical articles in university magazines and the media.

In a memorandum to the Ministry on 11 April, the SUHF articulated an extensive recommendation on how a revised quality assurance system ought to be worked out.


The intervention is due to Sweden being suspended from the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, ENQA, following the 2011 introduction of a new quality assurance system forced on the higher education sector by the Ministry of Education without consultation.

In April 2012, more than 20% of 189 study programmes evaluated by the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education were found to be 'unsatisfactory'.

Around the same time Sweden's system of quality assurance was itself rated unsatisfactory by ENQA, which found that it was only fully compliant with three out of 14 criteria and gave the National Agency for Higher Education two years to sort out anomalies in the quality assurance system.

These developments prompted widespread criticism in Sweden of the ministry for its decision to introduce learning outcomes-based assessment and for undermining university autonomy.

Since the 2011 introduction of the changed quality assurance system, the ministry has investigated more than 1,600 courses at Swedish higher education institutions.

An article in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's major newspaper, on 24 March asked how the government could defend 240 out of the 1,619 courses examined being found to have severe shortcomings, with institutions given one year to improve quality or shut down the courses.

For these course, Dagens Nyheter argued, institutions are able to charge tuition fees for students from outside Europe. In 2013, 2,502 international students paid SEK295 million (US$45 million) to study in Sweden - an increase of 695 students from 2012.

One of the international tuition fee-paying students, Connie Dickinson from the United States, hit the headlines last autumn when she claimed reimbursement of tuition fees paid to Malardalen University College, where she had been studying mathematics and statistics.

She said she experienced low teaching quality and insufficient access to computers, among other problems. When the courses she followed were rated during a quality assurance exercise as in need of improvement, Dickinson wrote a letter to the university requesting that her tuition fees be reimbursed.

Sweden's University Chancellor Lars Haikola told Dagens Nyheter that when higher education was offered to an international audience having to pay tuition fees, it was imperative to provide courses of high quality:

"Many fee-paying students implies that the quality control of the courses offered has to be extensive," said Haikola, who is also head of the Swedish Higher Education Authority.


Now the Swedish government appears to have had a change of heart regarding quality assurance, announcing earlier this month that the current system is to be reviewed.

On 8 April the Ministry of Education stated in a press release that Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson, former rector of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, had been appointed to review quality assurance work at Swedish higher education institutions.

The mandate is to review the present model and align it with quality work done at institutions.

"The principles of quality assurance at European level is to be taken into consideration," the mandate said, adding that the applicability of education to working life would also be "an integrated and important part of the evaluation".

On 3 April the government appointed Lars Haikola to undertake an extensive description of the development of Swedish higher education courses and degrees over the last 20 years.

The analysis must also clarify how well the supply of higher education is aligned in relation to quality, student demand, and the kinds of courses needed for the workforce and by society.

Haikola will be released from the position of University Chancellor, with a new chancellor due to be appointed from 1 June.