Government tables plans to strengthen research quality

The government has unveiled plans to strengthen the quality of research – by investing in more research time for existing staff and opening up routes into a research career, especially for women – in a bill presented to parliament last Monday.

There will be no overall increase in the number of researchers, however, and universities will be expected to secure a greater share of their funds from the European Union. But there is a commitment to double the share of women professors to achieve gender parity by 2030.

A key objective is to improve the career structure of researchers and challenge the current trend of universities recruiting researchers from candidates who studied at the same institution. Several of the measures taken should make it more attractive for young people to start a research career.

Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson, presenting the bill, “Knowledge in Collaboration – For social challenges and strengthened competitiveness”, said the aim is to shape the direction of Swedish research for the next 10 years, and outline the spending priorities for 2017-20.

“Sweden’s position [in international research] is good,” Hellmark Knutsson said. “But [we] have not kept up to the international position compared to other research nations, and the innovation capacity and impact of science shall be strengthened, as will cooperation with industry and business.”

She announced that the much-requested increase in strengthening the basic component of higher education institutions’ budgets would be SEK1.3 billion (US$141 million) for the period 2017-20 in total.

The budget increase – which critics says is too little to make an impact – is going to be directed towards research and innovation on the grand challenges like climate, increased digitalisation, health, sustainable development and quality in Swedish schools.

The government is explicitly addressing the issue of gender equality, stating that by 2030 half of all new recruits as Swedish university professors shall be women, compared to 25% today.

The government is hence mandating the Swedish Higher Education Authority to monitor each year in collaboration with higher education institutions’ leadership how they are following up the quantitative targets for their institution in order to improve the gender balance of newly recruited professors.

The strengthening of innovation capacity will be linked to a new emphasis on building the relevance of research to society at large and will be coordinated through the National Innovation Council.

Critics say the budget increase is too small or may actually represent a fall when the cost of other new demands on universities outlined in the bill is taken into account.

Review of funding

Hellmark Knutsson said that funding for research and education would be re-examined by a government committee in 2017, notably to investigate the claim by the younger universities that there is at present an imbalance between the funding to the older versus the younger institutions.

Currently, Swedish higher education institutions, with 60,000 staff and 400,000 students, cost SEK60 billion (US$6.5 billion) a year and university leaders have been pressing for a revision of the budget distribution model over recent years.

Under the bill, universities are expected to take stronger responsibility for the development of research infrastructure and, in particular, secure a greater share of EU research funds through larger components of co-financing.

In order to improve the research component in university teaching, the government will allocate part of the new basic funding for research based on the number of students, at least SEK12,000 (US$1,300) per student as of 2018 for all public higher education institutions and SEK8,000 (US$870) for other higher education institutions.

Swedish PhD students are not going to be included as students under higher education in the budget from 2017. They will be registered as university staff and the majority of them will be employed with a salary and welfare provisions. The employment period of a doctoral candidate will be specified to between four and six years in the new law, but the majority of candidates will have a four-year employment period.

The title of university chancellor for the head of the Swedish Higher Education Authority or UKÄ – which has existed for more than 500 years in Sweden – will be changed to director general, to signal that this position is held by a governmental official.

Risk of downscaling

Anna Nilsson Vindefjärd, secretary-general at Research!Sweden, which promotes medical research, and Cissi Askwall, secretary-general at Public and Science or VA, an influential non-profit organisation, wrote in Dagens Nyheter: ”Research is more important than ever – since we are living in post-truth times. The government has promised that Sweden shall be a leading research nation. But with the new proposition we are at risk of further downscaling compared with how much [of GNP] countries invest in research.”

Mats Ericson, chair of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers or SULF, said Sweden has lower basic funding compared to similar countries. The difference in Sweden, he said in Svenska Dagbladet, is that a significantly higher percentage of total funding comes from external sources, which makes it “impossible to make an academic career without having a steady inflow of externally funded project money”.

He said that, according to OECD statistics, Norway has 67% basic funding, Switzerland 62% and Denmark 57%, but Sweden has 43% and “the proportion has dropped during both the present and previous governments”.

Professor Astrid Söderbergh Widding, rector of Stockholm University, said: “The present trend of reduction [in student numbers] at doctorate level is due to the significant increases in the costs of doctoral training since the candidates now are employees of the institution during the whole doctoral training period, without institutions having been compensated for this in the budget model.”

She questioned the assumption that having a concentration in big research universities was a negative trend, since international comparisons showed that everywhere in the world there are big and strong research universities and smaller institutions, where even the latter can have a strong resource base in some fields.

“The proportion of larger, research-strong universities per inhabitant is not larger in other strong research countries – compared to Sweden, with approximately one per million people.”

Professor Kåre Bremer, former rector of Stockholm University and lead investigator for the 2015 government investigation on leadership at Swedish higher education institutions, told University World News that the proportion of funding for basic research will actually be reduced, because although the absolute figure is increasing, new demands being put on universities, such as requirements to find co-funding and include a component of teaching, will increase costs.

“The new basic funding will be eaten up by the demand for co-funding at the same time that more governance from the government will be the result. This is not what the higher education institutions want. They want greater autonomy,” he said.

Professor Anders Flodström of KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm – who was Swedish university chancellor in 2007-10 – told University World News that what was missing from the bill was a proper look at innovation and education as two sides of the same coin.

“In the innovative world now the paradigm is rather no education means no innovation. And by education we mean education where generic skills like entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity, leadership and digital awareness are part of all higher education.

“In Sweden, we still believe in a very traditional linear model for innovation where it always starts with research. Sweden’s high OECD innovation index is based on Swedish industry and public high investments in basic and applied research, while Denmark’s (even higher than Sweden) is based on the ability to innovate in a business context.”

Lena Adamson, associate professor of psychology and director of the Swedish Institute of Educational Research, said reducing the gap between education and research has been a constant point of discussion for decades, with research always winning and education losing on a systems level financially and on an individual level career-wise.

She said plans to couple both under one quality assurance system “definitely is a step in the right direction towards a better integration of the two”.

“However, moving from political decisions on the subject to concrete quality assurance models will require a lot of thought, expertise and financial resources, in order to create a fair, reliable and transparent system that can also be accepted by academia,” she said.

She said the next step ought to be to discuss the financing of both within the same context.

“Politicians need to be aware that when they decide on [funding] for prestige research projects like the European Spallation Source, which is useful for less than a handful of Swedish researchers, this will also have an impact on the resources left for education and our 400,000 or so higher education students. What does Swedish society need most, a spallation plant or a well-educated population?“