Council for HE boss resigns over admissions tests decision

The director general of the Swedish Council for Higher Education, Karin Röding, resigned from her position on 9 September in protest over Higher Education and Research Minister Matilda Ernkrans’ decision to push ahead with holding the university entrance exam, the Swedish Scholastic Aptitude Test (SweSAT or Högskoleprovet) in October, despite safety concerns due to COVID-19.

In doing so, the minister overruled the council’s decision, taken on 7 August, to suspend the test. That decision had been taken with the support of 21 rectors at the universities that normally arrange the test. They believed that the COVID-19 safety measures required – including the need for spacious venues, safe toilet facilities and increased numbers of trained personnel – would make it logistically difficult.

“I cannot accept having the responsibility for the test, but not having sufficient authority to arrange it,” Röding said.

Student selection in the Swedish higher education admission system is based on two fundamentally different performance measures: the criterion-referenced upper secondary grade point average and candidates’ score on a norm-referenced and multiple-choice admission test.

One third of those admitted to universities are selected on the basis of their grade point average, one third on the SweSAT score and one third are selected by universities.

For approximately 85% of higher education places, there is no competition.

The test was suspended this spring due to the spread of COVID-19. The number of applicants to Swedish higher education had soared to 450,696, an 11% increase on 2019.

Parliamentary pressure

Parliament has discussed the cancellation of the test several times and has put pressure on the government to have it reinstated. On 13 August the government decided to arrange at least three sittings of the SweSAT each year in 2021-23 to reduce the number of people sitting each time. Two weeks later it decided that only people who had not previously sat for the test could participate.

The government had also, earlier, extended the validity period of the test from five to eight years.

The SweSAT test is normally arranged across 21 institutions twice a year and has been taken by up to 150,000 people a year. One example of the complexity now involved is an estimate from Stockholm University which showed that the test in the autumn of 2020 would need to be taken in 2,300 examination centres involving 4,200 test people, compared to the ordinary 595 centres and 900 participating staff, due to the COVID-19 infection risk.

The government is funding the extra work involved with SEK30 million (US$3.4 million)

Parliament overruling universities

On leaving her position, Röding accused politicians of making decisions based on “feelings not facts, not least the attitude that the SweSAT is the only way into higher education”.

“Therefore I cannot take the responsibility for arranging the test,” she said.

She explained that SweSAT is only one of the selection criteria besides the upper secondary school grades and an extra chance to be admitted to one of the few prestigious higher education institutions. Most of those applying are already qualified for admission.

The move to appoint a national coordinator for the SweSAT was also a deciding factor in her decision to resign. “The order of command is becoming very unclear,” Röding said.

Peter Honeth was appointed national coordinator on 10 September, with a remit to work for the arrangement of the SweSAT in the autumn of 2020 and spring of 2021; and an additional SEK10 million was made available.

“The government is temporarily moving the responsibility for arranging the test to the Council for Higher Education [previously the responsibility was with the 21 institutions arranging the test], where the national coordinator is going to assist the council with the task in 2020 and 2021,” said Minister Ernkrans.

“The national coordinator is also mandated to propose a permanent organisation for the tests,” she said.

Honeth was previously a junior minister in the ministry and administration director at Lund University.

Strong support for Karin Röding

Astrid Söderbergh Widding, rector of Stockholm University, which caters for the largest number of test takers, approximately 16,000 or one third of the total, wrote on 10 September on her blog page, that she deeply regretted Röding’s departure.

“This year, when the pandemic has put all of us under great pressure, Karin Röding has with great integrity and knowledge had an active and constructive dialogue with us who are arranging the test and showed the greatest respect for our decisions,” she wrote.

Ulf Bjereld, professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg, told University World News: “Karin Röding is a person with high competence and strong integrity that the university and higher education sector really are in need of.

“Now, instead, we are at risk of damaging confidence in higher education,” Bjereld said.

Lena Adamson, former secretary general of the Swedish Institute of Educational Research and former deputy head of the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, told University World News: “I am amazed over this story. Where did ‘We listen and act according to what the experts say’ go, which we have heard from the government ever since the pandemic started? And when will the opposition stop using any issue, big or small and regardless of proper background knowledge, to press the government with?”

She said it had become a common government model to appoint a new head for the agency who is willing to act regardless of consequences.

“The matter of SweSAT has been assigned to Mr Peter Honeth. May I remind you about his role when Sweden was excluded from the European network for quality assurance, ENQA, because of the national quality assurance system he and Minister Björklund pushed through parliament?”