(Original Swedish post published 11 September.)

Yesterday we wrote in the local newspaper UNT about itchy-fingered interference. Read the article in UNT or read it below.

A new semester has started and we have welcomed our expectant new students to the University and to an education that will give them the skills and independence they need to meet their future labour market and the challenges of tomorrow’s society.

The government’s proposal this summer on widening participation has rightly provoked debate. The government’s message was that the Higher Education Ordinance would be amended to introduce tougher measures against social imbalances in student recruitment. Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson announced that higher education institutions must “work more broadly than previously to counter disparities in access to higher education between people from different social backgrounds, and to ensure that higher education is available throughout the country.”

It is very important that we have students from different social backgrounds and with differing experience – important for the educational environment and for quality. We are happy to open the door to more people and work continuously on new educational approaches, individual adaptation and other measures to give all our students the best chances of achieving their goals and dreams. It is natural for a university to try out and evaluate new paths to knowledge, both in research and in education. The quest for knowledge means constantly being on the move. We have no need of political lectures on this score.

But what is happening here is that a legislative amendment is being proposed, whose consequences have not been analysed, without prior discussion. The proposal circulated for consultation states that the wording should take account of the efforts to widen participation that are already in progress at higher education institutions. So why introduce legislation at all? Formalising multiple initiatives in law requires clarity, to begin with. What does ‘wider participation’ mean, legally speaking, and how is it to be monitored? Moreover: ‘wider’ efforts naturally require resources and a legal requirement will then govern higher education institutions’ choices when considering how to allocate funds for education. Priorities should build on knowledge and proven experience. Research shows that providing all students with good educational quality and teaching benefits those who are in greatest need of help.

The proposal, which has now been circulated for comment, is just one in a series of worrying political interventions since 2009, when the ‘autonomy reform’ was introduced. http://www.regeringen.se/rattsdokument/proposition/2010/03/prop.-200910149/. Under the previous government, a system for evaluating educational quality was forced through that was criticised by the higher education institutions and blasted by international reviewers of quality schemes. It is a serious matter that politicians have begun to repeatedly interfere in how higher education institutions conduct their own internal quality assurance of education and research. Earlier this year, Dalarna University and Blekinge Institute of Technology were forced to take decisions contrary to their own quality priorities. This is really going too far. It should go without saying that the choices made to best promote quality and knowledge development must be based on institutions’ own priorities and situations.

Spreading resources geographically will not solve the problem of social imbalance. Dividing resources between many small locations weakens the quality of instruction and makes it more difficult to achieve the goals that the government is aiming for. Moreover, the way in which the Minister points out that teaching needs to be adapted and higher education institutions need to devote more effort to reforming traditional teaching methods is not just pushing at an open door, it shows ignorance and a failure to understand the role of a government minister. The higher education sector must not become a cookie jar into which politicians dip their itchy fingers for short-term political gain. New proposals must be discussed broadly, with the higher education institutions and in parliament, before changing the law.

In the prevailing political climate, with growing populism in many countries, it is more important than ever to prevent a tendency towards increased political control of academia. It is time to ensure that higher education and research are given constitutional protection against short-term political influence. Naturally, as the entity responsible for and main financier of the education and research conducted at our higher education institutions, the state must set ambitious targets, but the institutions themselves must have a mandate to choose how to work towards these goals. The challenge facing the inquiry on governance and resources that the government appointed this spring appears ever greater and more important in retrospect. We need a discussion on the governance of higher education that is rooted in principles, that increases genuine autonomy and gives the higher education institutions greater authority over their own affairs. It’s quite all right to make high demands on our activities in terms of quality and relevance, but that aside, it’s time to put the lid on the higher education policy cookie jar.

 

Eva Åkesson, Vice-Chancellor

Anders Malmberg, Deputy Vice-Chancellor

Torsten Svensson, Vice-Rector for Humanities and Social Sciences

Stellan Sandler, Vice-Rector for Medicine and Pharmacy

Johan Tysk, Vice-Rector for Science and Technology

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