(Swedish version posted 6 February.)

Today I write about the report of the Inquiry on Rural Sweden on the site Altinget.se, under the heading “Proposals smack of further state control”. I have written before in this blog about the inquiry’s report, “For rural Sweden – a cohesive policy for work, sustainable growth and welfare” (Swedish Government Official Reports 2017:1). My title then was “New regional expansion of higher education institutions?” Now I was invited to write an opinion piece, and I accepted this invitation.

Proposals smack of further state control

Just when we higher education institutions are doing our best to understand the detailed implications of the recently presented research bill “Collaborating for knowledge – for society’s challenges and strengthened competitiveness”, a report has been circulated for comment which smacks of further state control. Reading the proposals in the inquiry report “For rural Sweden – a cohesive policy for work, sustainable growth and welfare” (Swedish Government Official Reports 2017:1) inspires a certain dismay.

Among the proposals, we read that “higher education institutions will be instructed to increase accessibility throughout the country” and that the government will “review the resource allocation system with a view to making educational programmes more relevant to local labour markets.”

It is difficult to reconcile the different messages. The government talks about the importance of quality, about the long term and trust, yet in the next breath there come sudden turnabouts suggesting the very opposite. As recently as last autumn, after the governing board of Dalarna University had initiated a discussion on campus locations, the university received written notice in its appropriation directions – more or less from one day to the next – that it must provide education in Borlänge.

Well-considered reasons for phase-out

Can it be that a new wave of regional expansion of higher education is on the way? Over the past 10 years, seval higher education institutions have reduced or ended their activities in smaller towns, for reasons of quality. They have had well-considered reasons for doing so. Having said that, we still have to take our responsibility and work intensively to broaden student recruitment and develop new kinds of distance education. In that area there has been tremendous progress in broadening access to higher education, not least because the technology offers so much better opportunities than in the past. Meanwhile, on its own initiative, Uppsala University has merged with the former Gotland University, a successful project that has increased the number of students and improved the quality of education available to young people on the island. There are several initiatives for increased collaboration between regional higher education institutions and the broad universities. If given a chance to develop, these initiatives would achieve far more than the proposed (symbolic) policies.

Alarming tendencies

What lies ahead? It is alarming that the government once again chooses to intervene and control activities without respect for the decision-making authority and independence of higher education institutions and without regard to the quality issues that they simultaneously raise in various connections. It is important, not least in these times of political anxiety, that higher education institutions are not made tools of political control. That would be a very disturbing development. Our role is to lead the long-term development of knowledge for the future, with a firm focus on quality and the best interests of society. We call for trust in our ability to make the necessary choices.

We fully understand the need for political reforms aimed at promoting development throughout the country. But an abundance of very small learning centres dispersed across the country is hardly the right way to go. It is odd that students cannot travel the 23 kilometres between Borlänge and Falun, when pregnant women have to travel far further to give birth. Investing in education is wise, but not at the expense of quality. That is counter-productive. High educational quality requires a critical mass of teachers engaged in research. In the inquiry’s proposal, higher education institutions are expected to finance regional education programmes out of their existing budget, which in practice means enforced changes in priorities without regard to the impact on the investment in quality that has been promised and with the level of quality that seriously watered-down local education would mean. The best way to meet the trends we are seeing today – political uncertainty, fact resistance and contempt for knowledge – is to strengthen the independence of the universities, defend critical thinking and provide conditions for society to move forward on the basis of knowledge.

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