Minister tells universities to stop academic inbreeding

Following the report of the investigation by the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) into academic inbreeding at three Swedish universities, public debate about the issue has intensified, with numerous allegations surfacing of job announcements that are so specific in their requirements that all but the name of the preferred candidate is effectively given.

In the major Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, professors Mats Alvesson and Erik J Olsson in an op ed article entitled “Friendship Corruption and Inbreeding at Swedish Higher Education Institutions” said that 90 positions at the University of Gothenburg have been filled that are not in accordance with the regulations, demonstrating a “culture of friendship corruption”.

On the Facebook page ‘Högskoleleckän’, Tom Andersson quotes from the announcement for a six-month investigator position at Linköping University, which specifies: “Of particular merit is knowledge of and documented competence working on the project ‘Enhancing Individual, Organisational and Societal Cooperation’.”

“I am reacting to the mentioning of participation in a specific project,” Andersson comments.

Factors of bias

In an article entitled “The 'stranger' among Swedish 'homo academicus'", written by Alireza Behtoui and Hege Høyer Leivestad and published last month in Higher Education – the international journal of higher education research – the authors investigate whether factors other than academic qualifications, such as gender and migrant background, might affect the individual’s ability to find employment and pursue a successful career in a Swedish higher education institution.

The investigation used register data from the Statistics Sweden database for 2012, in which 15,953 persons were identified as either having a PhD degree from Sweden or abroad and having had a Swedish university or university college as their latest employer. It also involved qualitative information from interviews with 19 academics from migrant countries.

“The results show that given the same work experience and compared to the reference group born in Sweden with at least one Swedish-born parent, individuals born in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America are firstly more likely to have been unemployed, and secondly, if they are employed, to have lower income [positions],” Behtoui and Høyer Leivestad write.

The article quotes several of the respondents’ experiences. In one case two lectureships had been announced. The respondent recounts: “For one of them they appointed an ‘insider’ who had been ranked first. For the other position, I was ranked first by all of the three external experts, who were big names in our discipline. However, the department heads invited the three top candidates for a recruitment interview and to give a lecture.

“I suspected the process wasn’t clean, but told myself not to be cynical. What happened was that they appointed another ‘inside’ candidate, a Swede who had worked there before, but who had been ranked as number three by all the experts.

“Most people around me told me to keep a low profile and not protest because it doesn’t lead anywhere.”

Questions in parliament

Referring to the SULF report, Fredrik Christensson, a Centre Party MP, directed a question to Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson: ”What action will the minister and the government take to have transparent and legally secure recruitment processes at higher education institutions?”

On 23 May, Hellmark Knutsson said in parliament that she welcomed the SULF investigation. “The suspicion that recruitment to universities is not following the law is serious. Sweden is going to be one of the world’s foremost research countries and a leading knowledge nation. The competence recruited is decisive for quality at the universities and hence the competitive position of the universities and of Sweden.”

She said: “The quality of long-term competence building is a strategic question for our universities. It is the responsibility of the universities and university colleges to see that recruitment is carried out according to the regulations. I am expecting that they now take on this responsibility.”

The minister said that positions at universities should be open and recruitment should take place in a national and preferably international competition.

“I am going to follow up this question in the dialogues I am having regularly with our higher education institutions,” she said.

SULF, via Twitter, welcomed the question of rigged positions being followed up in the dialogues between the ministry and the higher education institutions, but said it would have preferred that a mandate had also been given to the university chancellors to ensure that the universities have transparent and legally sound recruitment procedures.

The times are changing

University World News asked the special investigator for internationalisation of higher education in Sweden, Agneta Bladh, if she thought that increased international recruitment to academic positions at Swedish universities would reduce academic inbreeding.

She replied: “In the first report from the Inquiry on Increased Internationalisation of Higher Education Institutions, there were several recommendations to the higher education institutions, following the proposal of a national strategy with eight different objectives. One of the objectives was that staff at higher education institutions, including doctoral students, should have 'solid international experience and strong international networks'.

“In pursuit of this objective, the report states the necessity that the merit value of international experience is increased and the importance of advertising all academic positions internationally in a way that applicants from abroad have a fair chance to apply."

She said that during the preparation of the report talks with some faculty members in a faculty of humanities were held. The faculty members pointed out that in recent years there has been sharper competition in application processes in the humanities, with a higher number of international applicants.

Mats Benner, professor in science policy studies at Lund University School of Economics and Management, who is also visiting professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, NIFU in Oslo, and King's College London, said he is optimistic that the inbreeding culture of academic recruitment to Swedish universities may now change.

“But I fear for a continued bifurcation of recruitment with one open channel – internationally open and competitive – and one semi-hidden with local tailor-made recruitments. If Swedish universities are to elevate their international standing, that division needs to come to an end and be superseded with only one recruitment channel. One important precondition for this is a reform of university funding with a larger proportion of floor funding.”