European groups oppose university board membership limit

European university associations have joined calls for the Swedish government to reconsider its decision to shorten the terms of external university board members – ostensibly for security reasons – in a move the associations believe constitutes an infringement on time-honoured and hard-won academic freedom principles.

The European University Association (EUA), the League of Research Universities (LERU) and the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (The Guild) this week issued press releases reminding Sweden’s authorities that in a time of international distress the move works against the need to enhance academic freedom worldwide.

The government of Sweden, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, announced in April it was intending to cut the mandate of external university board members from three years to 17 months, attracting a flood of criticism from higher education institutions and other stakeholders.

This week, on 23 May, the EUA issued a statement in which it declared support for Swedish universities’ call to protect institutional autonomy:

“The European University Association condemns the recent decision by the Swedish government to shorten the mandate of external members of university boards from three years to 17 months,” it said.

Undue interference

The EUA said the decision “predicated on the rationale that institutions need expertise to address new security threats, sets a worrying precedent”.

It argued that the decision represents “undue interference in the institutional governance of universities, with the government unilaterally changing a well-established process regulating the nomination of external members on university boards”, a process, it said, that “reflects the collaborative relationship between public authorities and higher education institutions in Sweden”.

The EUA called on the Swedish government to reconsider its decision and to “develop more appropriate tools to address security threats – in discussion and collaboration with the Swedish university sector, rather than through misguided and unilateral action”.

The EUA statement in part echoed concerns expressed earlier this year in the latest edition of EUA’s University Autonomy in Europe IV: The Scorecard 2023 in which it said ad hoc interventions by public authorities, including political influence over the appointment of external board members, can seriously undermine institutional autonomy.

“This is cause for major concern, in particular for Sweden, which the Scorecard already lists as having low organisational autonomy,” it said.

In another statement, Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of The Guild, an association made up of 21 research-intensive universities across Europe, said: “Europe must be a beacon of academic freedom. We call on Sweden, at the time when it holds the presidency of the Council of the EU, to set an example to the rest of the EU by strengthening (rather than undermining) universities’ systems for responsible self-regulation, as called for in the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research.”

The Guild said it stands “in full support of the unanimous protest of Swedish Rectors expressed through the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions, against the Swedish government’s decision”.

It said the action “circumvents a well-established process to ensure a proper, careful balance between the government’s right to overview public universities, and the institutional autonomy and self-governance necessary to ensure academic freedom in the pursuit of knowledge”.

The Guild said it called on policy-makers to work in close collaboration and partnership with universities to ensure that “legitimate” security concerns are recognised within the “essential context of the free circulation of knowledge, the intrinsically global nature of research, and the need for academic freedom and autonomy in how we produce knowledge”.

It said it was “essential that Europe is strengthened as a global model for academic freedom and institutional autonomy” as the basis for quality research and teaching and its ability to attract and retain research talents.

‘Moderate to weak’ academic freedom levels

In its own statement, LERU expressed support for Lund University, other Swedish universities, and the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions in defending academic freedom and in particular institutional autonomy.

“Conditions for academic freedom should be strengthened instead of implying politically motivated changes to university boards' competencies,” it said.

The LERU statement noted that while the Academic Freedom Index measures academic freedom in Sweden as high, research and claims from the sector (Karran et al 2017, Maassen et al 2023) show that conditions for academic freedom are “moderate to weak”.

“Notably, the level of institutional autonomy is characterised as moderate and is low on legal aspects. This creates uncertainty on what the next step of the Swedish government will be,” it said.

When asked to comment on the issue, Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg, an academic in the department of government and the Centre for Higher Education and Research as an Object of Study (HERO), both at Uppsala University, also expressed concern about weak ‘guardrails’ to protect academic freedom.

She referred University World News to the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) report On Academic Freedom published in March 2023 and authored by Öberg in which she writes that it is not enough for academic freedom in Sweden to rest, as it currently does, “on the assumption of the self-restraint and moderation of politicians rather than on robust institutional structures”.

She writes: “Institutions must be built to withstand difficult tests and trying times. Regulation is required in order to reinforce the guardrails that protect academic freedom, with regard to both institutional autonomy and individual academic freedom. It is high time for Sweden to live up to the international agreements and legal texts it has signed for almost half a century.”

Politicisation of board

Jens Jungblut, associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Oslo in Norway, who participated in the LERU investigations, told University World News the latest move by the government “threatens institutional autonomy and could politicise the role and nomination of board members”.

He described it as a “hasty” policy response.

“While it is true that shifts in the global order demand new responses from higher education over how to deal with international collaborations in the future, especially in cases of competing value systems or national interests, it is very unclear to what extent this challenge is so pressing that it demands such a radical response.”

He said the security challenge had been part of higher education policy for some time – “Think about universities in the Cold War,” he said.

“So, in a way, a global academic community having to balance an academic ethos of cooperation with the realities of national interests and competition is nothing new even if global tension has increased in recent years.”

From a normative point, he said the proposal meant the government could use the label of ‘security concern’ as a way to influence board composition.

“This does not have to lead to misuse, but it opens the possibility for more political interference with boards,” he said.

Practical drawbacks

From a practical view, he said shortening the mandate of board members to 17 months could negatively affect their ability to develop organisational strategies and perform their oversight tasks if the new rule led to quicker turnover of board members.

“Additionally, it can hamper the working of university boards if nominations get delayed in the ministry if, for example, background checks take more time. This can weaken the role that the boards have in the governance architecture of Swedish higher education.”

Thomas Estermann, director of governance, funding and public policy development at the EUA, agreed with the practical difficulties presented by the proposal.

“A term of less than one year and a half does not make sense for a meaningful contribution of external members,” he told University World News.

Estermann said the involvement of external members was an important accountability mechanism that must be approached with “great care”.

“It should not be changed unilaterally to address short-term challenges that could be addressed much better in other ways,” he said.

He said guidelines on knowledge security have been developed jointly at European level and in several member states. “The Swedish government would do well to follow these good examples and leave the governance rules untouched.”

Going the wrong way

Sverker Sörlin, professor of history at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and a newly appointed external member of the board of the University of Umeå in Sweden, told University World News the protests against the Swedish government from respected international higher education organisations are both “understandable, and a welcome reminder” that Sweden is on the wrong pathway.

“They have come in support of the Swedish academic community and a massive informed public opinion, which in unison have condemned the decision to interfere in the process of appointing of university boards, without prior notice or appropriate inquiry.”

He said it was “baffling” and “almost surreal” to see a representative of the Liberal party – Education Minister Mats Persson – pursue “such illiberal policy”.

“Perhaps the most disheartening thing of all is that he has no credible argument for his drastic move. Mr Persson has given several interviews and has not managed to explain why we should believe him rather than everybody else with insight in university boards, security issues, or academic freedom. It seems as if he hides a ‘big dark secret’ in his pocket that he cannot disclose.

“I must admit that when European countries for many years worked hard to strengthen university autonomy, I was at first a bit surprised since I thought the fears of external intervention were a bit exaggerated. At least in Sweden we were home safe, I thought.

“Several years ago, as illiberal tendencies became more pervasive around Europe, I started to change my mind. It is necessary to protect academic freedom better, everywhere.

“Nonetheless, I could never dream of Sweden, of all countries, now taking this kind of step. I have seen ministers of higher education and research, from different governments, take many questionable decisions. But I cannot remember a single one as unwise and as undermining of academia as this one.”