What will a shift to the right mean for higher education?

Since the Sweden Democrats (SD) became the largest member of the country’s right-wing bloc in last year’s elections, questions have been raised about how much impact the party will have on the direction of the country that assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union Council on 1 January 2023.

On 22 December 2022, Karlstad University Associate Professor Tobias Hübinette described the government as “hostage” to the Sweden Democrats party.

“The Swedish government has this agreement [The Tidø agreement] now [with the far-right], and it has to honour it. Because otherwise, the Sweden Democrats will basically make the government fall. They are like hostages,” he told EURACTIV.

The SD secured 20% of the election votes. Although the party did not become part of the government coalition, they still exercise significant power through parliament.

The issue raised by EURACTIV concerns the influence of the SD party in the European parliament where “Sweden will now join the other countries within the European Union who are basically against refugees and migration”, Hübinette said, referring to Italy, Poland and Hungary.

Based on his close reading of the statements concerning research and higher education by the Sweden Democrats and his contact with relevant representatives of the party, Hübinette told University World News that the party has “no clear and elaborated policy on research and higher education”.

‘Strong opinions’ rather than policies

However, he said there are “some very strong opinions” that party representatives have expressed over the years.

Given that the Sweden Democrats’ rank and file consists of working-class people, there are very few leading members of the party with a higher education, a PhD, or who are active as researchers within Swedish academia or lecturers at a university.

Hübinette said while Sweden’s academic and research capacity in the field of gender studies was world renowned, the Sweden Democrats had repeatedly “spoken out against this fact and more or less expressed that gender studies must disappear from Swedish academia and as a discipline for students at Swedish universities.

“The party is also against the goal to achieve gender equality among university staff and full professors, and it has its own idea of creating a kind of fund for research on Sweden’s cultural heritage and Swedishness,” he said.

“Moreover, the Sweden Democrats have also strongly criticised research on racism, multiculturalism and discrimination and demanded the closing down of, for example, Uppsala University’s Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism (CEMFOR)”.

Climate issues may also come under attack in the new government as Jimmie Åkesson, the SD party leader, has repeatedly claimed that there is no scientific proof of a climate crisis.

The Swedish priorities for the EU Council’s work are security, resilience, green transition and democratic values in the EU. The question for higher education stakeholders is how this changing political situation will influence universities and research in Sweden now.

Academic freedom

“The governmental platform is a threat to academic freedom,” union president of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) Sanna Wolk wrote in an opinion piece in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter on 28 October 2022.

“Unfortunately, we see [in the governmental platform] that the new government is totally uncomprehending about why research and higher education should be politically independent,” she wrote, outlining four areas in which government is planning to interfere with university autonomy.

These are: teacher training, where the focus will be on “cognition science”; social ward training in which a compulsory element of younger peoples’ criminal behaviours is to be introduced; research on women’s health and illnesses; and energy research where nuclear science is to have prominence.

Commenting to University World News, Wolk said: “One of the cornerstones of a democracy is academic freedom. Politicians should not control research and higher education in detail. Doctoral students, researchers and teachers must be able to freely choose research problems and publish results without fear of reprisals.

“If the government seriously wants to stand up for academic freedom, free research must be protected. Unfortunately, we do not see any concrete proposals for this. This is something that worries us.

“In addition, it is today very difficult for foreign doctoral candidates and researchers to obtain a residence permit. While other countries strive to attract foreign doctoral candidates and researchers, Sweden’s politicians are not doing enough, which is very strange.

“Sweden must change its very inflexible migration laws. We see clear signs that Sweden is becoming a less attractive option in the international market for foreign doctoral candidates and researchers. This is a problem for both higher education and the Swedish corporate sector. Sweden needs a well-educated workforce”.

Major reforms are promised

Since the new government came into office late last year, no concrete educational reforms have yet been published, although Minister for Education Mats Persson (Liberal Party), in an interview with Universitatslararen, said he could “promise that there will be major reforms”.

Persson has, however, prioritised funding for the European Spallation Source research facility in Lund, which will receive SEK1.5 billion (US$95 million) over a three-year period, with SEK356 million coming in 2023 and just over half a billion in both 2024 and 2025.

Persson has also managed to stir up controversy by issuing several statements on the so-called “cancel culture” in Swedish academia and initiated a review on its prevalence.

In a 9 November 2022 opinion piece in Expressen, he wrote: “Censorship, forbidden words, or ostracism must not occur in Sweden higher education. University management has a responsibility as an employer and responsibility to stand on the side of research, even when it is perceived as inconvenient …

“Our freedom of expression and tolerance in society means that we can speak openly about various phenomena. This government will not see academic freedom as a piece of paper, a slogan. Intolerance will not be tolerated.”

In a response published in Göteborgs-Posten on 14 November 2022, the dean and an associate professor of the humanities faculty at Gothenburg University, Marie Demker and Erika Alm, argued that universities were not suffering from cancel culture and criticised the minister’s investigation.

“That an education minister – completely new to his post – should initiate an ‘examination’ of a ‘phenomenon’ so vaguely described that it can contain everything that suits the political best is a mockery of those of us who are active in a sector with completely different and more serious problems.

“Instead, equalise the financial conditions for the university’s various educations, reduce the growing administrative control and review requirements at our institutions of higher education, and direct increased research funds to the young and newly graduated who are the future of the academy.

“And don’t stop us from problematising controversial issues with our students – it’s actually one of our most important tasks as university teachers,” they wrote.

A sector out of sync?

While Sweden’s higher education system has played a significant role in facilitating decades of continuous economic growth, political stability and the success of a broad social welfare system, there have been concerns expressed – beyond party politics – that universities are increasingly out of sync with a rapidly changing society.

In an essay published in the December 2022 volume Fit for Purpose? The futures of universities entitled “Higher education for an inclusive and resilient knowledge society – Sweden as role model or cautionary tale”, two of the sharpest higher education analysts in Sweden, professors Mats Benner and Sylvia Schwaag Serger, argue that the Swedish higher education system has contributed significantly to the country’s internationally competitive manufacturing and engineering capabilities, its scientific strength, and its ability to balance market forces and international openness with ambitious public service and social welfare provision.

Yet they have reason to be concerned that Swedish universities are not rising to the “increasingly existential challenges that society, democracy, humanity and the planet face today”.

The reason, the writers argue, “is stagnation on many fronts, resulting in universities being increasingly out of sync with a society which has changed with accelerating speed and in an alarming direction”.

According to the book’s preface, their analysis provides a revealing insight into what went wrong in a system that was previously praised for its ability to renew itself and remain relevant.

Leif Lewin, who is Johan Skytte Emeritus Professor of Eloquence and Government at Uppsala University and author of Democratic Accountability: Why choice in politics is both possible and necessary, told University World News the problems affecting universities in Sweden, as highlighted by Brenner and Schwaag Serger, had a long prehistory that predated the rise in influence of the Social Democrats.

He said it was misleading to suggest, as Hübinette does, that the influence of the SD means Sweden will “join” other immigration sceptic countries without highlighting the level of Sweden’s earlier support. “Sweden has been, and still is, one of the most open countries in Europe,” he said.

On the issue of ‘cancel culture’, Lewin said he agreed with Persson that cancel culture is “indeed a big problem at Swedish universities” and said he supported the initiative by the minister to try to do something about it.

On the issue of academic freedom, however, Lewin said the Sweden Democrats have no tradition of respecting academic freedom. “Vigilance is necessary,” he stressed.

Responding to Lewin, Schwaag Serger said she agreed that the problems she and Benner identified in their paper “have been a long time in the making and, therefore, it might be better to ask what the government can/will do about it rather than linking it to the current controversies/debates on the new government’s interference in academic freedom”.

However, “the challenges we identify in our paper are not accomplished by quick fixes or simple solutions which some politicians might be tempted to resort to (for example, I’ve heard that some advocate simply increasing the share of funding allocated in competition).

“Addressing the challenges also requires efforts on the side of academia, universities and university leadership, not only the government,” she said.