Academic positions rigged at Swedish universities?

An investigation into hiring practices at three Swedish universities has provided evidence that in their recruitment processes many universities may not be following the requirements of the law to find the best candidates and that many appointments may be rigged.

Current practices are hindering mobility nationally and internationally, the investigation concluded.

The investigation by the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) was carried out at three faculties at Lund University, the social sciences faculty at Stockholm University and the medical faculty at Uppsala University.

The findings show that “a majority of the recruitment positions have been arranged in such a way that it cannot be excluded that the results are decided upon beforehand”, which means that filling these positions may be rigged.

Of 268 cases, the investigation found that:
  • • 57% of the positions were announced with a shorter time for applying than three weeks.

  • • 74% of the positions had less than five applicants, 37% only one.

  • • 49% of the positions have been filled within 20 days after the latest application date, 6% on the same day as the latest application deadline.

  • • 73% of the positions were filled with an internal applicant.
According to the report (in Swedish), A Play for the Gallery? About recruitment processes in higher education, by Anna Lundgren, Git Claesson Pipping and Karin Åmossa, recruitment to Swedish universities is protected by the constitution.

The report says: “Our examination of the filling of these positions makes us conclude that it is not certain that the higher education institutions are following the law. It is not clear that the recruitment processes are supporting the requirement that governmental positions should be filled with the best qualified applicant.”

The report says the “well known” measure of internal recruitment is the number of academic positions filled by candidates who obtained their degree at the same university. “Our aim is not to ask if the best qualified person was recruited, but if the provisions in the law have been followed.”

The report says higher education quality depends upon selecting the best applicant and that means that there has to be time allocated to the recruitment processes so that external candidates have a chance to apply.

“Good processes of recruitment are also a precondition for academic mobility, both nationally and internationally and between universities and in society at large,” the report says.

SULF has made several key recommendations to higher education institutions:
  • • Secure more long-term budgets – and planning processes, including recruitment strategies.

  • • Create working procedures that makes rigged appointments impossible.

  • • Introduce internal quality control mechanisms that have to be used in recruitment processes.
SULF has called on the government to increase the basic research budget to higher education institutions to create better possibilities for long-term planning of budgets and personnel and to give the university chancellor the mandate to work out a quality recruitment system in which each university has transparent and law-abiding recruitment procedures in place.

Immediate actions taken

“The report raises several questions,” Eva Åkesson, rector of Uppsala University, told Upsala Nya Tidning. “We have to go deeper into this and I will appoint an internal investigation at Uppsala University. Competence and career questions are important for us and are highly prioritised.”

Astrid Söderbergh Widding, rector of Stockholm University, said on her blog page that the report illustrates one of the greatest problems at Swedish universities, that recruitment processes often favour internal candidates, instead of being open and transparent.

“In 2015 we asked our humanities and social science faculties to work out statistics on this issue. Out of a total of 222 appointments within the humanities, 101 had taken their PhD degree at Stockholm University [SU] and 87 had SU as the latest employer.

“The corresponding figure for the natural science area is in total 64 appointments, where 12 took a PhD at SU and 18 had been employed at SU at the time of recruitment,” Söderbergh Widding said.

She said that even though the university leadership had repeatedly posted notices on the need for transparent recruitment processes, changes would take time.

Selection U-turn

The SULF investigation coincided with a case of alleged nepotism in the selection of a candidate for a four-year research position at the Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism at Uppsala University.

There the selection committee recommendation had to be retracted upon a decision of the Swedish Higher Education Appeals Board, where one of the applicants, Tobias Hübinette of Karlstad University, had filed a complaint about nepotism, based on email correspondence between two members of the scientific committee harmonising their recommendations for the position.

He told University World News: “The corruption and nepotism within the Swedish higher education and university sector is unfortunately both absolutely endemic, normalised and institutionalised and this concerns everything, from who gets positions, and especially the permanent tenure track ones, and who gets funding and research grants to who gets invited to lecture and speak at conferences and seminars and who gets published in journals and publications.”

He said the “somewhat unexpected decision” by the appeals board is welcomed by many researchers in Sweden and has also forced Uppsala University to launch an internal investigation into the scale of the problem.

But “it will not change the Swedish academia which almost needs a meritocratic revolution to be able to reform itself once and for all”.

He said the fact that Sweden is generally and internationally considered to be one of the least corrupt countries in the world is “a paradox”.