Government pulls plan to fight social inequity in HE

Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson has withdrawn government proposals to make universities work harder to combat social inequity in access to higher education following strong opposition from within the sector.

The plan to reduce the bias in admission towards students of parents who have a university education was heavily criticised from all quarters because it did not offer the necessary new resources to make it work and the government has been forced to rethink its plan.

Hellmark Knutsson said to Ekot, Swedish radio: “We have had comments from many universities saying that this is an unclear legal proposal that does not focus upon what is most important for the government, that we through higher quality in education shall manage both broadened admission and broadened participation.”

“We first have to look through the resource allocation system and then we will strengthen the work with broadened participation,” she said. “We have made the proposal and the resource allocation situation in the wrong order of things.”

After several years of preparation, the legal proposal had been sent out for consultation in July this year. Hellmark Knutsson said when sending out the proposal: “We are investing SEK67 billion (US$8 billion) each year. Therefore it is important that higher education shall not be only for the few, but for everyone in Sweden who is qualified.”

The proposal aimed 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 were to 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”, according to the proposal.

The proposal generated intense debate with repeated questions asked about how the law should be interpreted and not least implemented without allocation of fresh resources. The core of the discussion was that not only admission to universities but the completion of university degrees should be addressed through “broadened participation” of underprivileged groups.

For example, Linnaeus University, which has campuses in Växjö and Kalmar, said increasing admissions would lead to an “increased workload that will risk resulting in lowered knowledge attainment” without more resources.

More students would need transcription, texting and sign interpretation of lectures; more rooms would be needed for examinations; and heterogenous student groups need increased time for more individually adapted communication between student and teachers.

The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise said that while agreeing there is a need for a more socially diverse student body, it would not support the proposition, arguing that in the worst case scenario this would lower the quality of higher education.

The Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers, or SULF, said it would only back the proposal if the necessary resources were provided and this had to be written into the law.

Åsa Odin Ekman of the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees or TCO, which represents 1.2 million people, urged the government not to abandon “this important work of broadening participation”.

High ambition, low resources

Ekman said the scrapped proposal mirrors a shift that has started both in Sweden and internationally. “Previously the focus had been on more students from low attainment groups applying and starting higher education. Over time we have seen that this is not sufficient.

“To ensure that everyone, independent of their background, can access higher education universities need to be offering support and other actions to enable the students to fulfil their studies with good results. For the government to take a step to change the higher education legislation was therefore a much longed-for sign of high ambition. And it was needed since nothing has happened in many years.

“Unfortunately, the discussion about resources has led to the questions about the reality behind the proposal and not about what we mean about broadening participation and how we will achieve this,” Ekman said. “I hope this will not mean that the government drops this question but comes back with a new proposal,” she said.

Professor Kåre Bremer, former rector of Stockholm University, told University World News that since the steering and resource allocation system for higher education is currently under investigation by the former rector of Gothenburg University, Pam Fredman, it is “only logical to postpone any new legislation until she has delivered her report”.

“In general, I hope the government will refrain from adding more admonitions and dictates to the Higher Education Law, a practice initiated already by the former government. Although such additions may seem harmless and well intentioned, you never know what future governments may want to impose on the universities. The contents and execution of higher education courses should be left to the universities without interference from the politicians,” Bremer said.