HE minister’s hands are tied on funds for teaching

The new Minister for Higher Education and Research, Helene Hellmark Knutsson, is facing an uphill task to convince the sector that she can invest in education as well as research, given the uncertain political situation.

Due to budgetary constraints, one of the first acts of the new government was to announce that they would close down the Swedish research institutes in Rome, Athens and Istanbul, only to retract the decision after heavy protests from universities and research institutes.

Hellmark Knutsson, 45, a Social Democrat, was appointed by the left-of-centre minority government in October, but Swedish politics is still adjusting to the ousting in September of the centre-right political government led by Fredrik Reinfeldt, after eight years in power.

For 70 years before Reinfeldt’s administration, the Social Democrats had been the dominant political force. But these are less certain times.

The party formed a minority administration after the September elections, then all but collapsed in early December when the budget vote was blocked, as the nationalist-populist Sweden Democrats party sided with the opposition against the budget.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven initially announced that fresh elections would be held in March, only to do a u-turn at the end of the month, having agreed a minority government with the Greens, and compromise on the budget, under which Löfven and his ministers have to suspend most of their new policies until next year.

The irony for Swedish higher education is that, at a time when internationalisation is high on the agenda, domestic politics is being heavily influenced by anti-immigration sentiment.

The previous prime minister Reinfeldt called on Swedes “to open their hearts for refugees”. But the election in September saw a strong swing towards the Sweden Democrats, signalling growing discontent over immigration, which exceeded 100,000 immigrants a year in 2012 and reached 110,000 in 2014.

The Sweden Democrats campaigned on an anti-immigration ticket and took 12.9 % of the votes and gained 49 representatives.

Swedish Institute scholarships

Due to the budget constraints for 2015, the Swedish Institute did not get the SEK50 million (US$6 million) grant money expected for international students from outside Europe as was proposed in the new government budget.

Director General of the Swedish Institute Annika Rembe sent a letter to Swedish embassies saying that the Swedish Institute will not be able to offer any new scholarships within the Swedish Institute Study Scholarships, or SISS, programme for studies beginning autumn 2015 “due to the financial demands placed on the national budget by the increased amount of arriving refugees anticipated for 2015”.

Scholarships will, however, still be offered for applicants from Syria and South Africa due to special agreements with these countries, as well as within the Swedish Institute’s other scholarship programmes for the Western Balkans, Turkey and Baltic and Eastern Partnership countries (including Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine).


Hellmark Knutsson was a dark horse for the ministry post in higher education and research. She has credits for university studies in history, economics and statistics but no degree – according to her CV posted on the government website – and 20 years of political experience in the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, as Municipal Councillor of Sundbyberg and as leader of the Swedish Social Democratic party at Stockholm City Council.

She inherited several problems from the previous Alliance government, most notably the ‘over-financing’ of research and research infrastructure at the cost of expenditure for teaching and educational programmes.

Also problematic was a quality assurance system that had been costly to develop, and was against the will of the universities and European coordinating bodies – and which is now in the process of being replaced.

In addition, it was evident that the performance of Swedish higher education institutions was not in line with the public investment in the sector, with expenditure on higher education as a percentage of gross domestic product, or GDP, being among the highest in the world.

University World News asked Lena Adamson, an associate professor of psychology now working as an expert in quality assurance issues for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and the Council of Europe, what the major challenges for the new government were.

She said: “This extremely unbalanced financial situation between higher education institutions’ research and educational activities is a mirror of the very unproductive divide that exists between the two in total, both within and outside higher education institutions. Until the day when teaching is evaluated as highly as research, this will continue.”

She said the educational landscape is changing rapidly and the teaching-research nexus has to be developed and promoted, but for that better funding is necessary.

“We are very far from a true integration between research and education in many places; student research for instance is almost non-existent in Swedish higher education. I am not very keen on top-down policies, but here we need it to turn the ship.”

One important sign of progress would be political decisions on better financing. A reconstruction or the removal of the ‘productivity reduction’ – a mechanism for promoting effectiveness taken from industry and business which has nothing to do with ‘effectiveness’ in teaching – would be a first step, she said.

New policies

Since taking office, the minister has worked on the new government policies for higher education and research. In January, in a speech addressed to the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees, comprising 1.2 million members in both public and private sectors, Hellmark Knutsson showed her cards.

“Sweden, during the previous government [term], made great and important investments in research, not least in research infrastructure,” she said. “These are sound interests that the present government will continue with.

“But we hear over and over again that we also need to invest in education. We want to formulate an ambitious and long-lasting research policy that is coupled to an equally strong policy for education. Thus we are building a strong Sweden with a competitive force to meet the future,” she said.

“The government ambition is that internationalisation within higher education shall increase. And I want to underline this: Sweden is not going to be a bystander. We are actively going to participate in the international agenda. I am going to… move our position forward and update our work within internationalisation,” she said.


Professor Mats Benner at Lund University, an expert on university and research innovation told University World News: “Where the government is a little silent is when it comes to strengthening the basic funding for higher education institutions and better support for younger researchers in their careers.

“The great challenge now is that much of the resources are tied to previous government decisions in strategic research areas, notably investments in costly research infrastructures.”

He said the government needs to think how increased basic financing and better funded services can be provided to better align research policy with educational policy.

Last week a forceful response to the minister’s position was published as an op-ed article in the newspaper http://UNT.SE by Torbjörn von Schantz, the new rector of Lund University, and Pam Fredman, rector of Gothenburg University and head of the Swedish Rectors’ Conference.

“Higher education institutions will never be able to improve their quality due to under-financing of the wages,” they wrote.

Higher education institutions, during the period 1997 to 2013, have lost at least SEK15 billion (US$1.8 billion) due to the so-called ‘productivity reduction’ of higher education budget allocations from the government. In this period student numbers have increased by 50% or by 100,000 students, they argued.

“One way to get a move on this situation,” Von Schantz and Fredman argued, “is for the government to give a combined allocation to higher education institutions covering both research and higher education, not as today with separate funding for these two objectives, with no options for transfer between the two sectors.

“Such a transfer option will make it possible for universities to involve research staff, who today are financed exclusively by external funding, in teaching at the universities,” they argued.

Professor Sverker Sörlin of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm said the government has yet to spell out what it will do post-2015, but the Social Democrats when in opposition “argued not only for more resources to undergraduate education, which is necessary; they also had a sound reasoning around an enhanced situation for the humanities and social sciences.

“These areas were sadly neglected by the previous government. There is also a need for new thinking about the career system.”

Sörlin said that, overall, higher education policy has been too selective and biased towards medicine and technology. “Sweden needs research and education for society as a whole. Universities, in turn, have to change their programmes to stay relevant.”

But PO Rehnquist, former Executive Director of Administration at Gothenburg University, told University World News: “The higher education minister has good ambitions and has made several positive moves. However, I am not sure that the minister of finance is a strong supporter, in particular when it is coming to costly university reforms.”