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Collegial governance drives quality

There is a long tradition of collegiality in the university sphere. It is based on the principle that scientific discourse and solid argumentation among peers are what best help to maintain and develop quality in research and education, and that colleagues are both willing and able to contribute to such an environment. In a setting like this, people share responsibility. While older colleagues are expected to guide their younger peers, the argument always takes priority over age or position.

And bearing in mind the way universities are structured, it is among researchers and teachers that the most detailed knowledge of research and education content is to be found. It is difficult in any simple, obvious way to claim authority over the knowledge of the research group if you are not part of that group, or if you work in another subject field or somewhere else higher up the university hierarchy. Instead it is peers, colleagues in the same or adjacent disciplines, who are best placed to expound on the quality of the research or education in question.

Having a collegial structure in place that considers the needs, thoughts and opinions of those closest to the everyday reality at the university regarding research and education is important for other reasons too. Decentralised governance founded on scientific expertise and discussion stands on firmer ground, and this bolsters the universities’ autonomy and independence as regards political governance.

At the same time it can also, somewhat paradoxically, make a seat of learning more agile. It can increase flexibility related to research and the focus of education relative to the wider world, both nationally and internationally. This is because the people most familiar with the status of research in a particular field can best suggest changes.

As well as being pivotal to any scientific environment, collegiality is also a form for exerting influence, executing governance and taking responsibility. As a form for governance, scientific judgement can be used as a basis for more general quality appraisals in a broader subject group, for instance in decisions relating to quality-enhancement measures, education plans or qualification requirements in third-cycle education. In the same way, collegial governance could also include participation in general discussions about, say, operational plans, regardless of where the formal decisions are made.

The collegial approach also needs to co-exist alongside a more traditional line organisation, where managers have a clearly defined mandate and responsibility to work with all manner of issues related to staffing, resource allocation, monitoring and the work environment. In some cases, of course, it may not be immediately clear if a matter should be dealt with by the line organisation or be subject to peer consideration. While this may not always be possible to determine one way or the other, it is nevertheless vital that here, too, wisdom and good judgement from across the organisation are allowed to be factored in.

I hope, and indeed firmly believe, that it is possible to build an organisation with a strong faculty structure alongside a strong line organisation.This can only benefit both development and quality in a university.

More money to engineering and science and high score in internationalization

Finally! Under Sweden’s upcoming budget proposal, the government is going to increase the payment to universities for students in engineering and sciences. This is not a day too early, and the investment in engineering education programmes is very welcome indeed.

Since the ‘price tag’ system was introduced 30 years ago, the NT funding per student in science and engineering programes has lagged behind. This was confirmed for engineering programmes, for instance, in a report by Engineers of Sweden, published this summer.
Needless to say, this stands in glaring contrast to the huge need on the global job market for, specifically, technical expertise and excellence.

According to the government’s proposal, the payment to universities with such students as these, including KTH, is to be raised by 1.6% per full-time student in 2024.

At this point it is hard to predict with any certainty exactly what the monetary amounts will be and what impact they will have. For exact figures, we will probably have to wait until the budget is presented in parliament on 20 September.

Another pleasing piece of news is that KTH received the top score, five stars for its work on internationalization, for the seventh consecutive year. Using an internationalisation index The Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education, STINT, has weighted the international engagement of 28 higher education institutions. Measured parameters include international joint publications, student mobility, international doctoral candidates, programmes taught in English, the international academic experience of faculties, and the international academic experience of management – all for the year 2021.

Although internationalization has become an increasing part of everyday life at KTH, and much of our research and education are fundamentally internationally oriented, it is important for KTH to seek out new collaborations with universities in different countries, focusing not only on Europe but also the US and Africa.




Important interchange between education and research

It goes without saying that a university should offer education linked to research, as this can only strengthen the institution and help it to evolve. Our students have a right to knowledge that is up-to-date and relevant, and this can only be guaranteed if the education is closely linked to a scientific, research-based environment.

But the issue that’s generally neglected is what this research should be, and how the quality of research improves when there is a close link between it, education and students. Is it equally obvious that research should be linked to education, as it is that education should be linked to research? It’s never a bad thing to have young, questioning people around, but how does this bolster research, and how can the interchange between education and research be developed in a way that teachers, researchers and students need each other?

These matters were subjects for debate at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences last week, in which I participated, based on a recent report (in Swedish only) presented by the Academy. The report looks at how education and research can be closely integrated in further education in Sweden today – or rather, how this is currently not happening.

One suggestion in the report is that greater efforts in research should also be accompanied by efforts to develop the education environment. This is an interesting and innovative proposal, which would mean that research efforts should also work in favour of education, for example by linking the development of master’s programmes to research funding.

For a research-intensive university like KTH, this would be a positive development. It would mean that we have greater scope to create complete academic environments, and could also better benefit from the advantages that arise from expanded, successful research environments. One pivotal argument in linking education to research funding is that it is through education that we can most quickly ensure that the latest and most advanced research has an impact.

I look forward to continuing this discussion in other forums, and to have further opportunities to emphasise the importance of keeping research and education closely linked. In that context, it would of course be important to once again raise the issue of collective funding for research and education (as is the practice in many other countries, not least in the Nordics) so that the connection between research and education is emphasised also in the governance system. This is, after all, what makes us a university.


A higher education policy reflecting the sector´s reality is needed

In Sweden, higher education institutions are national concerns as they are funded through taxes and the state is the principal for the vast majority of institutions. This means that, ultimately, the development of the academic sector is based on political decisions made by Sweden’s parliament and government. What is also needed, therefore, is a higher education policy that formulates this responsibility, and defines goals and roadmaps for the development of the sector.

A higher education policy might, for instance, include position statements on the role of education in democratic development and the provision of skills for society, and the importance of research in improving competitiveness and societal progress. A higher education policy agenda could also include core values to protect, such as the institutional autonomy of universities and freedom for students, teachers and researchers to seek out knowledge. The higher education policy would be based on the individual institution’s development needs to enable it to contribute to overall developments in society in the best possible way.

The difference between what we have today and what the higher education sector needs to be, is therefore an expression of the reform that’s needed in the sector. Perhaps the funding system needs to be restructured, perhaps reforms are needed to bolster autonomy, or maybe changes are needed in the admissions procedure to bring higher education more in line with society’s need for skills and expertise. Depending on the ideology and goals, different reform catalogues could be formulated as a foundation for the hard work of drafting reports and bills. So essentially, the standard way of producing policy.

The concern for further education is that while it is the recipient of considerable state resources, it is not an important area in its own right. Higher education is needed to meet challenges in other areas: for example to help achieve the energy transition, provide skills for a changing labour market, or to help solve problems regarding equality in the school system. That’s all well and good.

But far more rarely does anyone ask the question: What do the institutions themselves need if they are to build a strong operation for the good of society? The important matter of the institutions’ own needs if they are to serve as a crucial force in all areas of society, long-term, has been completely absent from any negotiating table during recent governments’ terms of office.

Having said that, maybe it doesn’t matter that much. The higher education sector is robust! There is economic scope and there are great cohorts of staff doing an excellent job, even though higher education policy itself is being ignored. Ground-breaking research is still being done, and universities and other higher education institutions are continuously developing and updating their programmes to meet the needs of students and the labour market.

Even so, something feels off. The risk of not having a higher education policy is that institutions become easy prey when other issues come to the fore. If for example a security-policy issue should arise, the temptation may be to take swift, ineffective action to the detriment of the higher education sector. Or if, say, 180 million kronor is needed somewhere in the political sphere – surely this can be taken from the apparently so well-funded higher education sector, as it doesn’t have a particularly robust reform agenda in any case, and it’s an area of low political interest.

This is what could happen if, like Alice in Wonderland, you don’t know – and don’t much care – where you’re going. But it is certainly an interpretation that is a bit exaggerated.


In search of debates and vacation

After six months as University President at KTH, the summer break is almost upon us. But first a few inspiring and, I hope, thought-provoking days at the political week in Almedalen, where everything from urban planning to academic freedom and strategic partnerships will be on the agenda.

It’s a source of pride and joy to see the breadth of KTH’s research and how it’s reflected in the various panels at Almedalen. Energy solutions for the future, how remote working can benefit regional development, and what education is in a world of AI.

These are some of the topics in which representatives from KTH will be engaging and debating.

This year, there’s the opportunity to book a young expert on a panel. The idea is that more, and above all different, voices and perspectives should be heard in the debate and political discussion during Almedalen Week. This is certainly a good idea, and next year we may be joined by even more participants in the panels and seminar, bringing a wider perspective and broader experience than usual. It could be an important step in being able to better reflect opportunities for the future.

I have heard various opinions and predictions saying that Almedalen is on the decline, and that this year’s over 2,000 events may not attract as many visitors as last year, when there were 35,000 or so.

But coming together and mooting ideas is always needed in a democracy, and at a university like KTH. In this respect, Almedalen Week is vital in reflecting the times we live in, discussing the future and learning lessons from our experiences. We will have to see how this summer’s event goes, but interest initially at any rate remains high for the political week in Visby [the main city on Gotland island].

Perhaps we’ll meet in Visby the week after Midsummer…? Either way, I wish you a nice, relaxing summer break!