Investigation into university governance criticised

The draft reforms of university governance and funding distributed by Sweden’s special investigator on higher education, Professor Pam Fredman, have come under heated criticism from academics and academics’ rights advocates, who say they will sideline academics and reduce university autonomy.

Fredman presented the first draft of the reforms in January for consultation and over the summer published four notes synthesising the more than 60 written comments received and experiences drawn for participation in more than 100 conferences, meetings and seminars in Sweden and abroad. The work is now also drawing criticism.

Erik J Olsson, Jens Stilhoff Sörensen and Magnus Zetterholm, the founders of Academic Rights Watch, which monitors academic freedom in Sweden, said in an article in Svenska Dagbladet last month: “Sweden is now near the bottom in Europe with regard to university autonomy and freedom from political pressure. A new government must address the issue of research independence.

“An undermining of the collegial representation governance is taking place, developing a picture where we now have an employed rector as a kind of CEO for a ‘Universities Inc’ controlled by the government."

They said a rector should not be a “spineless puppet". And in a later article in the same publication they asked: "Where are the rectors when academic freedom is under pressure?"

In the newsletter of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), professors Ylva Hasselberg of Uppsala University and Gunnar Olofsson of Linnaeus University said this is “another higher education investigation that intends to limit the collegial governance in the development and leadership of universities and university colleges. More power is transferred to the top university leadership”.

“The university teachers’ profession is not present in their overarching model other than as an underlying problem and bearers of inertia and limited group interests," Hasselberg and Olofsson said.

Fredman responds

Fredman, responding to the criticism, told University World News: "Academic freedom is more important than ever, and this principle permeates our work and recommendations.

“We were very clear in the document presented in January that the academic ground values including academic freedom are fundamental to the role of higher education institutions.

“In the note published in June we also stressed collegial responsibility and the professional knowledge of teachers and researchers as a foundation.”

She said she agrees with Hasselberg and Olofsson that the professional role of university teachers is central. “Our remit does not include the internal organisation of universities, but we do want to propose their right of representation in university bodies in the same way as the representation of the students is secured.”

Some rectors reacted strongly to the critique of the role of rectors. Professor Kerstin Tham, rector of Malmö University, wrote on her blog page: "We rectors are not spineless puppets. We have strong ambitions to ring-fence academic freedom and autonomy against political interference.”

She said it was “somewhat tiring” to read the comment by Academic Rights Watch that the Swedish system is putting rectors in the hands of the government rather than working for science.

“A critical voice grounded in research-based knowledge is needed and is something that all rectors are working for and we [rectors] are concerned about the universities’ role in society, which is more important than ever in this time when populism and resistance against facts are growing," Tham said.

She referred to an extensive internal process at her university where a representative group of staff and students had produced a document on how to implement a new governance system.

Jacob Adamowicz, president of the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS) – representing 275,000 students – told University World News: “Our interpretation is that the mission of [Fredman’s] investigation is to make suggestions about the relationship between the state and the universities and how the governance functions. The questions of representation of staff (and students) is an internal issue for the universities and should not be handled by the investigation, to ensure autonomy of the institutions.”

He said the SFS welcomes Fredman’s approach in gathering the views of all stakeholders and thinks the outlined structure for the governance that has been presented will be beneficial for Swedish universities.

“It lays the ground for more long-term governance that gives each institution more autonomy to reach common goals in their way," Adamowicz said.

Former rector of Stockholm University, Professor Kåre Bremer who in 2015 chaired the commission seeking stronger roles for university leaders, told University World News the goal of Fredman’s investigation is not primarily to increase autonomy but to reform the current system with yearly letters of instruction and separate budget allocations for education and research, respectively.

He said this obviously has implications for the degree of autonomy, since much of the distribution of economic resources influences the direction taken, and as the annual state budget for higher education and research is high, at SEK60 billion to SEK70 billion (US$6.6-7.7 billion), it is consequently “unlikely that the Swedish government, irrespective of the parties in power, will grant much higher degrees of autonomy to the Swedish state universities – unfortunately".

Further investigator notes published

On 27 June four documents were published by Fredman focusing on performance agreements between universities and the government, competence building for policy decisions and the distribution of government funding between research and higher education, which is one of the areas receiving most stakeholders’ comments.

For the investigation, Mats Benner, professor in science policy at Lund University School of Economics and Management, has undertaken a comparative analysis of the knowledge base for higher education policies in Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, describing the links between higher education knowledge production trends and the implementation into a higher education policy by the governments.

The analysis indicates a lack of coherence in the present situation in Sweden, calling for a strengthening of a central analysis unit.