Commission seeks stronger role for university leaders

The proportion of university budgets comprising basic funding should be increased and collegial influence on decision-making and recruitment should be reduced, to give university leaders greater freedom to prioritise spending and hire staff to meet strategic needs, a commission on higher education leadership has recommended.

The commission, chaired for the past year by former rector of Stockholm University, Professor Kåre Bremer, was tasked with looking into how to strengthen leadership at Swedish higher education institutions.

On 12 November Bremer presented the commission report at the first of three conferences on academic leadership in the Aula Magna auditorium at Stockholm University, where State Secretary Anders Lönn and the Chair of the Education Committee in Parliament Lena Hallengren participated.

The wide-ranging 513-page White Paper – which contains an English summary – and its 50 recommendations will generate heated debate because it challenges the existing parameters of internal staff and students’ influence over the decisions of an institution, with the aim of achieving better strategic leadership.

On receiving the report, Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson said: “For Sweden to be a frontier knowledge and research nation, universities have to have a strong leadership that has the ability to make strategic – and sometimes unpopular – decisions on priorities, and [hence] secure that freedom of research is guaranteed.”

Astrid Söderbergh Widding, rector of Stockholm University, noted in her blog last week: “It is not a high-risk guess that the commission report will lead to a lively discussion within the sector.”

Key proposals

One of its key proposals is the strong recommendation to the government to increase the proportion of the institutional budget that is given as a basic component, for the institutions to decide over within their own strategic prioritisation.

Today, too much of the total funding, notably of the larger and older, more research-intensive universities, comes as external funding under conditions of high competition. These external grants often come with a claim of matching funds from the institution which binds up too high a proportion of the total budget and limits the institutional manoeuvering space.

In addition it calls for collegial influence on strategic decisions to be reduced notably – although the collegial voice should still be heard – with resource prioritisation and strategic decisions taken more often above the departmental level to secure the interest of the whole institution better than is currently the case.

The system for election of members to the collegial bodies, from the academic board to the department board, should be more flexible and adapted to institutional specifics, notably with regard to the size of these bodies, which in many cases have been demonstrated not to function optimally, the report recommends.

It also stresses that more must be done to increase the proportion of women professors – currently only one in four are women.

“We have had discussions with approximately 300 persons and done what we could to hear voices from ‘the ground floor’ [of the higher education institutions],” Kåre Bremer told Universitetsläraren, the magazine of the Swedish Association of University Teachers, SULF.

“We are proposing to move ‘strategic recruitment’ at least to the faculty level, since this will stimulate mobility and limit too much internal recruitment,” Bremer said. “I do understand that there is strong defence of the collegial model of decision-making, but at the same time no one can prove that it is functioning particularly well,” he said.

The national regulation of universities and university colleges was reduced by legislation in 2011. There are laws regarding the board and the rector, but the higher education institutions themselves can decide on how they shall be led and how to organise the institution. There are some good practices but ambiguities in responsibilities and mandate prevail, the report says.

The commission found that collegial bodies in the leadership structure today often act conservatively, and have difficulties in acting strategically with regard to new courses and with regard to resource dispositions, the commission concludes.

The academic leaders, notably at department level, often have an unclear academic mandate, limited resources and heavy administrative workloads, constraining their ability to act strategically.

The commission proposes that the universities “clearly set out principles for the division of responsibility and authority between collegial bodies and the line organisation” but that the collegial bodies’ roles should be designed in a way that allows employees’ expertise and knowledge to be used in the management of the university.

Staff recruitment

In clear text the commission repeatedly underlines the importance of top leaders being involved in the recruitment of new academic staff. This was collaborated by case studies of the rector position at universities in Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, Finland, Austria, Korea and Singapore, where the rector usually has a much stronger say in decisions on the appointment of new professors, and in particular in ways to make it attractive for global talent to come to their universities.

On behalf of the commission, the Swedish governmental organisation Tillväxtanalys (Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis) produced 16 case studies in the report on governance and leadership at universities in other countries, among these TU Delft, Cambridge, Bristol, Stanford, Helsinki, EPFL-Lausanne and Copenhagen and Aalto universities.

Professor Mats Benner of Lund University and KTH Royal Institute of Technology has written a research survey on Academic Leadership: What is functioning and why?

Stockholm University said in its hearing letter to the ministry that it supports the proposal that the institutional board should consist of 7-15 members including the chair and the rector. “An external majority should be the main rule, since this will secure a greater quality in the board’s work since broader perspectives will be represented.”

Rector Anders Hederstierna of the Blekinge Institute of Technology told University World News that his institution is recognised as “rather successful” in executing a clear strategy.

“We have a clearly formulated academic leadership with explicit personal authority (vis-a-vis the collegial responsibility). Regarding employment in tenured track positions, all of these are approved by the rector. At our small college this is functioning excellently.”

Kåre Bremer is not optimistic about receiving increased funding for research to increase the basic component of universities’ funding, in the context of extra public money being spent on the refugee crisis. “But I hope that the proportion of the total state funding that can be used without constraints will increase over the coming years,” he said.