Investigator proposes more autonomy for universities

Sweden’s special investigator on higher education, Pam Fredman, has presented a preliminary proposal for reforming the governance and funding of universities and university colleges to improve coordination of goals and strengthen university autonomy.

The model was presented at a meeting between universities and funding agencies at a seminar arranged by the Association of Swedish Higher Education on 12 January.

The mandate of the investigation is to make the sharing of responsibilities between the government and the higher education institutions clearer and more transparent and to lay the foundation for high-quality research, education and innovation, meeting the social challenges more effectively than today.

The preliminary report proposes:
  • • Better national coordination of goals, set from long-term needs and developmental trends;

  • • Correspondence between long-term goals attainment and results-monitoring through a contract between the ministry and the universities;

  • • One combined fund for higher education institutions that they themselves can use on research and higher education and not two separate earmarked funds as today, to secure more university autonomy.
The preliminary report is based on three pillars: The academic core values of universities, universities’ social responsibilities and the Swedish higher education landscape.

The latter is unique for Sweden, the report states, because Sweden does not have a two-tier system with a separation between the academic universities and professional institutions taking care of vocational training. The proposed new model of governance will build on this tradition.

The report, which examines the strengths and shortcomings of previous university reforms, identifies the current system as being short-sighted in objectives, weakly coordinated and too generalised. It says there is a lack of connection between research and higher education leading to a sub-optimal building up of new competence and that lifelong learning in particular is not secured in today’s structure.

As a consequence, the system is geared to providing too similar provision across all institutions, resulting in “courses that can be run with a large number of students with a high average completion rate”.

The report says there is a pressing need to stem this development, notably by developing a closer connection between research and higher education to secure more courses based on updated research, and to ensure that students are more actively participating in research at universities than today.

It argues that the current system of distributing research funding has changed in a way that has undermined universities’ ability to implement long-term research strategies and there is an urgent need to address this problem.

The weakening of the system stems from changes in the proportion of research funding coming from basic funding provided by the government compared with the proportion provided by external funding sources, the report says.

Two decades ago, in 1995-96, 56% of research funding came from the basic budget and 44% from external funding. But by 2016 these figures had been reversed.

A final model is due to be delivered to the Ministry of Education and Research in December this year.

Several stakeholders have sent in comments and large numbers of consultations, seminars and newspaper articles have been published.

To support the work of the special investigator, an expert group of six persons has been appointed plus a reference group of eight members of parliament.

An in-depth study on internationalisation and a cost-benefit analysis of the different elements proposed in the new model, are also being undertaken as part of the investigation.

‘Failure’ to address third cycle

Responding to the proposals, Professor Sigbritt Karlsson, rector of KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, criticised the failure to mention third-cycle education and asked whether it should continue to be linked to research or be counted as part of teaching. The skills supply for academia and society in general needed to be addressed.

Writing in her blog, she said: “In recent years, external research financiers have financed PhD students to a lesser extent, while opportunities to provide scholarships for third-cycle studies have become less freely available. This justifies addressing third-cycle studies in the inquiry.”

She said that with a single grant, universities would have more chance of deciding for themselves where the needs exist and how resources should be allocated, which would encourage not only independence but efficiency.

On Radio Sweden Mats Benner, professor in research policy at KTH, said Swedish universities should be kept as a “free zone for the world” by giving them more freedom and also responsibilities. “But the inertia that has been reported from foreign researchers and students dealing with Swedish immigration authorities has to be solved.”

Speaking on the same programme, Fredman agreed with the last point, saying the bureaucratic difficulties have to be solved by the relevant Swedish government agencies working together.

Hans Pohl, programme director at the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education, or STINT, told University World News that the investigation was too narrowly focused on the national system and not enough on internationalisation, even though internationalisation strategies are being investigated separately.

He said: “Given Sweden's extremely high dependency on international collaboration and exchanges, it might lead to the wrong conclusions if the cross-border flows of people and funding are ignored.”

He argued that the funding of international research infrastructure must be increased.

Speaking to University World News, Benner said Fredman’s report is strong on identifying problems with the way universities are funded, but seems “a bit unclear as to the remedies”.

He said the ministry needs to develop capacity to set up long-term plans and universities need to overcome their decentralisation in order to be able to devise long-term plans for the entire university.

“The ministry, which is very small by international standards, must develop analytical and contractual capacity to set up long-term plans for the respective universities, analyse the specific conditions for specific educational and research areas, and ensure there is a plurality in the university system, without too many overlaps,” he said.

He said universities need to get their act together and devise long-term plans for the entire universities, for educational programmes, research specialisation and de-specialisation, and networks and alliances with external partners.

“All of this is highly decentralised today and university leadership is more or less wholly dependent on actions, networks and engagements within the universities' different parts for their strategic directions.”

He said the draft report does not address the balance between government and external funding for research.