Security vs openness: Towards responsible internationalisation

A high-level international panel discussion on the topic of ‘responsible internationalisation’ is Sweden’s latest contribution to an ongoing debate over how far national security considerations can be taken before academic freedoms and institutional autonomy come under threat – and what ‘responsible’ really means.

Held on 14 September, the discussion was around a debate that features prominently in today’s Swedish academic landscape.

It was organised by the Platform for Internationalisation (PLINT) of the Swedish Higher Education Authority, the Swedish Institute, the Swedish Council for Higher Education, the Swedish Research Council and Vinnova, in collaboration with Sweden’s innovation and research councils in New Delhi, Brazil, Peking and the United States.

The discussion confirmed that internationalisation – which must be “truly mutual” and conducted in a responsible fashion – is essential both for high scientific quality and to meet global challenges, according to panel moderator Britta Fängström, a senior advisor at Formas, a Swedish research council for sustainable development.

The discussion comes in the wake of government initiatives aimed at balancing the need for internationalisation with global security concerns which call for the protection of national interests, including knowledge and technology.

Among these initiatives is the Swedish government’s mandate issued in July this year to the Swedish Council of Higher Education, the Swedish Research Council and Vinnova, Sweden’s innovation agency, to draft a proposal aimed at improving ‘responsible internationalisation’ processes in higher education, research institutes and government funding agencies.

“International collaboration within higher education and research is in many cases decisive for excellent research and innovation,” the mandate states.

“The government wants to create good preconditions for the utilisation of research results both in the public and private sectors, and in a safe way contribute to strengthening Swedish competence and resistance capacity. At the same time the openness in research is at risk of being exploited,” the mandate states.

“Many other countries have taken actions to implement responsible internationalisation, for instance, in the form of national guidelines or support structures, with the focus on strengthening security within the research activities at the same time as international collaboration is continued. For the government it is important that Sweden is developed in line with the rest of the world,” the mandate states.

A preliminary draft of the proposal is expected to be delivered before 31 March 2024, with the report expected to be finalised by 15 December of that year. The work is to be coordinated by the Swedish Council of Higher Education.

A focus on university boards

In a related initiative, on 1 September, the government appointed a special investigator, Peter Egardt, to work out proposals for “how universities and university colleges’ competence in security questions can increase”. The investigation is to focus on how to strengthen security competence among external members of university boards. The deadline for Egardt’s report is 31 December 2023.

Part of Egardt’s mandate is also to consider how other countries are working with security challenges at their universities and university colleges. He will also need to establish exactly what competencies in security-related issues are needed on the boards of universities and colleges and how to secure them.

Egardt is required, in what is perhaps the most controversial aspect of his mandate, to investigate and analyse the impact of demanding security clearance from external members of a university or university college board, and the heads of such boards, and propose appropriate legislative changes to give effect to such requirements.

“Swedish universities and university colleges are more and more drawn into an insecure security political situation. The government now wants to examine if the heads of the boards at universities are going to need security clearance. We have problems with foreign powers,” Minister of Education Mats Persson was quoted as saying by Svenska Dagbladet on 1 September.

Persson, minister of education since 2022, has a doctorate in economic history. Since becoming minister he has engaged in tense discussions with Swedish academia, first stating that he would not accept ‘cancel culture’ at Swedish universities and then in January mandating the Swedish Higher Education Authority to conduct case studies on academic freedom at Swedish universities and university colleges.

In April 2023 Persson sparked an intense debate at universities by proposing to halve the mandate period of the external members of university boards due to ‘security reasons’ as reported by University World News.

The proposal relating to board members has been criticised by higher education stakeholders including the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF).

“SULF is among the organisations the special investigator will contact for comments. We are monitoring the investigation closely and we are going to be clear on our attitudes towards the way university boards are rigged.

“We note that the mandate makes the point that the basic task of universities and university colleges in a democratic knowledge society is to be a critical and reflecting force in the development of the society. This is an important point of departure and we are looking forward to a dialogue with the investigator,” SULF secretary-general Lars Geschwind said.

Lund University Vice-Chancellor Erik Renström told University World News he would not prejudge the outcome of the investigation into university board members, but said it was “looking far-fetched that the security work at a university would be strengthened by simply having an external representative in the board with competence in security”.

Renström said it would be better if universities, through the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF), were in closer and ongoing dialogue with the government on issues relevant to the sector.

“When we have to respond to investigators’ questions our input to these questions is delayed. The government is of course free to initiate such investigations and reforms – that is the work the ministry should be doing – but if the sector is to accept these reforms and proposals immediately, the question is how effective these investigations are,” Renström said. "From initial interactions it is seems that the universities have progressed further and have a more developed and insightful view on security issues than the government itself has."

Jacob Färnert, president of the Swedish National Union of Students, also called for a more collegial approach to the issue from government. He said that while “competence-enhancing efforts regarding internationalisation and security” may be needed, “increased government intervention in these processes, such as the government’s decision to shorten the term of office for members of university boards, are serious interventions” that risk undermining academia rather than helping it.

Universities take a proactive stance

Quite aside from government initiatives on the matter, the question of responsible internationalisation has been on the agenda of Swedish universities for some time.

In March the rector of Stockholm University, Professor Astrid Söderbergh Widding, wrote in her blog that international collaboration at university level was “one of the most discussed questions in Swedish media”.

Defending universities against accusations of naivety, Söderbergh Widding said it was clear the country faced one of the most serious international security political situations in many decades and it was of utmost importance that higher education institutions were not contributing to violating Sweden’s security.

She suggested a key guideline, already used in discussions about open research data, could be useful: ‘As open as possible, as closed as necessary’. Openness should be the baseline, she said, but there might be good reason to limit this openness in different ways.

Söderbergh Widding referred to the STINT publication (2020), Recommendations to higher education institutions on how to work with responsible internationalisation, details of which were covered by University World News.

She also referred to the geopolitical council in the Swedish Association of Higher Education Institutions’ Global Relations Advisory Group’s Global Responsible Engagement: Checklist, which is based on six indicators: democratic principles and limited academic freedom; the reputation of the partner; conflict with regard to the use of data, IPR and patent rights; misuse of research and negatively unwanted applications; ethical dumping and security around personal and biological data; and personal security.

In search of the right balance

Asked for her views on how to balance internationalisation with security concerns, Professor Nafsika Alexiadou at Umeå University, where she is the director of the university’s internationalisation and higher education project, said the government’s use of the term ‘responsible internationalisation’ was “sufficiently broad and general to accommodate all sorts of responses” from researchers, government agencies and funding bodies.

“It is also impossible to object to doing internationalisation ‘responsibly’, and of course there are many practices that individual academics, departments and whole universities engage in that can (and should) be improved regarding potential risks with international engagements.

“But the balance between internationalisation and openness on one hand, and security against risks on the other, is very fine. Swedish academia has a strong tradition of openness, freedom of research and linking with international partners across the world that also fits well with the European Union’s Higher Education Area and the more recent Strategy for Universities,” said Alexiadou.

“This openness should not be taken for granted,” Alexiadou cautioned. “There are several examples from other European countries where universities are forced to de-internationalise (and re-nationalise) their offerings as a result of welfare nationalism and protectionist policies (as Brøgger, Tange and Jaeger, and Warren have observed in Denmark).”

Alexiadou said security risks posed by recent geopolitical shifts “may be real and serious” but the need for openness and international cooperation in universities was “vital for an inclusive and knowledge-intensive university sector, and for a healthy democracy.

“It would be easy but dangerous to take decisions that tip the balance too much towards security and begin a process of closing off avenues of cooperation. At the very least, universities should be able to exercise local judgments regarding ‘low level’ collaborations and exchanges of people and ideas that constitute the ‘bread and butter’ of academic work.” Alexiadou said.

Widening the debate

André Bryntesson, a member of the Higher Education and Research as Objects of Study (HERO) at the Swedish Centre for Studies of the Internationalisation of Higher Education at Uppsala University, told University World News he hoped, personally, that “other aspects of responsible internationalisation” could enter the discussion, apart from pressing national security concerns.

He added: “Not least the ethical importance of not admitting students insufficiently prepared for the Swedish higher education environment.

“Some of those students come from poorer countries and invest their family's accumulated savings to pay tuition or living expenses. Not only do they risk failing to finish their degree and returning in shame, but their struggle also creates moral dilemmas for teaching staff who through their teaching and grading end up determining whether or not those students will be able to fulfil the criteria required to be able to stay in Sweden and continue their studies.”

Dr Susan Wright, professor of Educational Anthropology and chair of the Circle U European University Alliance at the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University, said concerns about national security are important and “so is the question about how to strike a balance between protecting national interests and protecting academic freedom, as the issue is framed in Sweden”.

However, she said two other considerations should be taken into account in a definition of ‘responsible internationalisation’.

“First, when diplomatic relations have been strained to breaking point, yet academics have managed to maintain research ties on non-strategic issues, it is often through these links that governments try to rebuild trust again. So, a government asking universities to suspend cooperation with Russia and Belarus, as the Danish government did recently, may be too un-nuanced an approach.

“Second, other parts of the world, notably India and countries in Africa and South America increasingly criticise European universities’ established approaches to internationalisation for encouraging brain drain and inequalities between the Global North and South.

“Instead, there are active debates about how to develop international partnerships that value diverse forms of knowledge creation and expand the capacities, resources and standing of universities in the Global South. One example is the working group on alternative internationalisms, whose work will be discussed on 24 October at a conference in Brussels: “European Universities – Critical Futures,” she said.

A serious responsibility for universities

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, former rector of the University of Oslo and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and now acting secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, told University World News that if academic institutions “rightly rebuff undue political interference” in their internationalisation efforts, they “take on a responsibility on [their] own to navigate competently and ethically in an increasingly challenging international landscape”.

He said: “Universities should see it as their own responsibility to develop competence for responsible internationalisation. In doing so, resources, information, and meeting arenas provided by external actors should be appreciated and welcomed. But if such actors choose to impose restrictive guidelines or interfere politically this should be seen as antithetical to the universities’ mission.

“We should be reminded of the following statement in the Magna Charta Universitatum (2020): ‘Intellectual and moral autonomy is the hallmark of any university and a precondition for the fulfilment of its responsibilities to society. That independence needs to be recognised and protected by governments and society at large and defended vigorously by institutions themselves.’”

Ole Petter Ottersen endorsed comments made by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen in the State of the Union address on 13 September. “She said that we ‘can and have to cooperate’ and that we should ‘de-risk, not decouple’. This is the essence of the current debate.

“In this context, political decision-makers need to be reminded of the risk of not collaborating internationally …Our experiences from the pandemic have taught us that in an interconnected world, open exchange of information is essential and key to national security,” he said.

A view from Finland

Jussi Välimaa, professor emeritus at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research at Jyväskylä University, said there had also been a “long-lasting concern” about security issues in Finnish higher education institutions.

“I assume that today all Finnish academics are informed about the risks related to cooperation with Russian or Chinese actors. There has been academic research on cyber security for example in the University of Jyväskylä,” Välimaa said.

“As for academic freedom, it has been secured both in the Finnish constitution and in the Universities Act. But academic freedom and institutional freedom depend on each other … In Finland, the Ministry of Education and Culture emphasises the autonomy of higher education institutions. In reality, however, the picture is not that rosy because the ministry also tries to steer higher education institutions with the help of funding.

“Simultaneously the ministry trusts that higher education institutions are doing their best and higher education institutions are confident that the ministry aims for the best of Finland. As always, motivations of these actors may be different, but goals are pretty much the same: high quality teaching and research in higher education,” Välimaa said.