Plan to broaden access to HE raises funding questions

A proposal by the Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson to broaden access to universities, sent out for consultation last month, has sparked a row over whether it can be achieved without providing more funding for teaching.

The minister sent the proposal to change the university law of 1992 out for consultation on 18 July.

The proposal aims to broaden access to higher education in two senses, to achieve both equitable access to courses and equitable achievement during courses, by for instance, giving students “a good reception and support throughout their education” and through “increased geographical accessibility”.

Universities and university colleges would be required to increase their intake of students from different parts of the country and ensure that students “regardless of sex, sexually transcendent identity or expression, ethnic belonging, religion or other belief, functional hindrances, sexual inclination, age or social background can seek admission, start and complete higher education”, the proposal says.

The deadline for commenting on the consultation note is 24 October, and the government is planning to implement the changes from 1 July 2018.

The proposal refers to a 2016 report by the Swedish Council for Higher Education, “Can Excellence be Achieved in Homogenic Study Groups?”, which found that broadening of recruitment and participation is gaining ground internationally, and that to achieve this in Sweden a new focus on support during studies has to be enforced, in addition to changing recruitment strategies.

“This mapping found that broadened recruitment alone is not sufficient, but that higher education institutions have to give the students a good reception and support through their higher education,” the consultation note says.

“The term ’broadening participation’ means that this is not just recruitment of students from different backgrounds, but also ensuring that they complete this education,” the note says. “For instance, is it significantly more common for men who are studying on women-dominated courses to drop out of their studies compared to women.”

The consultation notes that the impact of the social background of parents – meaning that the higher the education level the parents have, the greater the chance for student success – has been relatively unchanged for those students born between 1981 and 1991.

Demand on resources

In an article in Svenska Dagbladet, Alexander Maurits and Tobias Hägerland, both professors of theology at Lund University, urged Hellmark Knutsson to spell out in more detail how the forms of broadened participation, bringing in more students with varying study backgrounds, could be developed without giving them more time and attention, which will demand new resources being allocated. Otherwise the competence requirements would be lowered, they said.

But Hellmark Knutsson said the new legislation is not going to lower the demands on the students and that the legislation is not about new resources but how to substitute a pedagogy built on “traditions” with a pedagogy founded in “scientific thinking”.

She said that when the current government took over, the question of widening access had been kept dormant for eight years under the previous administration.

She said there was widespread positive feedback on her attempts to address this issue again.

“We know that there is still double the chance for a student to pursue higher education if the parents have an academic education. Therefore, we are expanding the higher education sector with 18,000 extra study places until 2021,” she said.

Resource allocation will be increased by SEK3 billion (US$370 million) during this period and SEK900 million (US$110 million) will be allocated to “improve the conditions for the social sciences and the humanities”, she said.

Possible impact of proposed changes

Author and commentator Göran Rosenberg said on Swedish Radio that higher education has become an important knife in the government’s political toolbox. “But if the knife is made less sharp and if higher education for all in practice shall mean education of lower quality for more people, as it will be if it is to be implemented without costs, increasing the load on teachers who are already working hard, then I fear the [minister’s proposal] is a symptom of a much larger problem than the lack of broadening participation in higher education.”

Professor Kåre Bremer, former rector of Stockholm University, told University World News that it was not clear what impact the change would have on “knowledge requirements” and academic results.

He suspected that the minister was “more interested in more students graduating than obtaining the standards of the [present] degree requirements”.

He also raised concerns that the wording on “geographical accessibility” might signal more ministry involvement in universities’ planning of campuses “in the same scandal-prone way as happened in Dalarna” where the minister overrode university autonomy.

Lena Adamson, director of the Swedish Institute for Educational Research, agreed there was a need to address the issue of widening access but stressed that the “gigantic hollowing out of the financial resources” for higher education teaching since the mid-1990s “is one of the main problems”.

Funding had not kept pace with higher education institutions’ increased spending on wages, she said.

“Demands for increased effectiveness are built in for teaching students in a similar way as for producing hamburgers or bicycles,” she said. “The balance between government spending on higher education teaching versus higher education research, which in fact has increased more than in most countries for many years now, must be changed.”