Skip to content

If academic freedom becomes law

There is a proposal to rewrite the first section of the Swedish Higher Education Act with effect from 1 July next year. In addition to listing lifelong learning as part of university activities, academic freedom will also be entered into the Act. That is a good thing per se, but increased control without increased resources risks sounding better than it is.

Academic freedom not only includes freedom to research, that is already protected by the Act, but also educational freedom. In the government PM, they talk about the concepts of the free search for knowledge and the free dissemination of knowledge. Here, it is important to maintain a clear separation between educational freedom and academic freedom. The free search for knowledge is definitely not the same as educational freedom. Added to which, the concept of freedom of teaching is also used, which further complicates the issue.

Education should, and this is clearly regulated, be comparable throughout the country. A teacher’s freedom in this context is not to entirely autonomously decide what the teaching or course should contain, but rather how teaching can be pursued in terms of methodology and pedagogics. For KTH, which is a degree programme university in the main, there are decisions about programmes and courses that are taken after quality assessment procedures before they are offered to students.

In terms of how education is anchored in research, a teacher has the educational freedom to include research findings. On the other hand,  the Higher Education Ordinance system of qualifications includes requirements on general qualifications and professional qualifications,  which are necessary to ensure comparability within the same type of programme. Educational freedom is different to academic freedom as this ultimately affects a group of individuals, namely the students that take a course or a programme.

Another objection is that as the first section of the Higher Education Act is seen as the university equivalent of other public authority instructions, this should be reviewed for example in annual reports and evaluations. How then should freedom be translated in practice? And how should it then be measured and weighed? It is important that this too should be clarified if the amendment is to become reality next year.

The amendment concerning academic freedom can seem to be an unnecessary reinforcement bearing in mind that what has already been said is safeguarded in the same paragraph that establishes a researcher’s right to research into what they want to do, freely choose their method and thereafter freely publish the results. But on the other hand, it must be said that this can never be sufficiently safeguarded.

 In a discussion that was organised last week by Rifo, a group of MPs and researchers, it was stressed that things like academic freedom, media and civil rights are the first to go when democracy is dismantled. Academic freedom also includes academic responsibility, of for example, taking responsibility for output or training the next generation of researchers.

During my time within the sector, I have seen how university and college activities have become increasingly regulated – sometimes in great detail. This is a worrying development. If expertise, creativity and quality are to go hand in hand, there must be the space and resources to enable this.

However, it is also incredibly important that we use these definitions correctly, continue the debate, without getting bogged down in the undergrowth of interpretations.

Unbalanced financing worrying in budget bill

A substantial investment in research and an increase in basic funding are positive parts of the government budget bill that was announced last week. However, how the money will be allocated and the degree of long-term thinking behind these investments will be crucial. My hope is that the allocation will be based on the capacity to take on research and the ability to deliver research that is internationally competitive.

According to the government’s draft budget for 2021, SEK 3.4 billion will be invested in research and innovation.  Basic funding will gain an additional SEK 500 million for 2021, to compensate for reduced income from external private research financing bodies as a consequence of the pandemic.  A permanent increase in funding will also be added in the next few years. For me as an obstinate advocate of increased basic funding, this is naturally pleasing.

However, at second glance, I wonder if this will genuinely generate greater strategic freedom of movement and give universities and colleges more room to manoeuvre. I say this because alongside the basic funding, the research councils will also get more money which in one respect is good.

It will mean that there is a risk that the imbalance between basic funding and external financing will remain. Basic funding for research can be used for unrestricted research to an ever diminishing degree, as is the freedom to make strategic prioritisations locally or centrally at universities. As this imbalance now looks set to remain, this is not good news in the long run.

The bill also includes investments in large scale, national infrastructure, but here I cannot avoid being reminded of the financing of local infrastructure that rests heavily on the shoulders of each individual university. A good infrastructure (both local and national) is both an absolute necessity and a quality determinant for KTH researchers and students.

And by extension, also for Sweden’s competitiveness.  An infrastructure that works well for laboratory learning, research tests etc., is an essential everyday requirement for a university of technology. The local infrastructure supports the needs of education, which is absolutely necessary, not least because we still await any information on how the government intends to tackle the issue of price tags within education.

Science and technology are areas that have lost the most since these were introduced in 1993. It is high time that this issue was also addressed.

When the research and innovation policy bill arrives at the end of November, we will see how the money is to be allocated and according to which principle.

 

Intensify and diversify

The question of the diversification of Sweden’s universities is always on the agenda, not least for KTH, even though talk of this has been far too quiet in recent years. The idea that Sweden’s level of know-how and competitiveness would increase if we were to have a university on every corner is erroneous thinking.

Not least the experience of digital teaching over the past few months has shown that proximity to higher education is not simply physical. With online courses, it is even clearer that if you live in the back of beyond, you do not need a local university to be able to study or be attracted to studying.

You can go to KTH instead. If you were to choose to do a foundation year in technology  for instance, there can be a mix between  online courses and  campus meetings. Plus, many people would rather not embark on higher education where they live, perhaps preferring to relocate in line with the trend for increasing urbanisation and to gain a degree from a university with an excellent national and international reputation.

The larger universities ought to be allowed to further develop their specialist expertise instead and continue to hone their lead, even in the case of research (link Dagens Nyheter Debate). Digitalisation and online education will radically change the university landscape over the next few years. Maybe, it would be better to concentrate expertise in fewer hands, but have more regional and local campuses? That Campus Gotland gained a real boost when it became a branch campus of Uppsala University, is both a good and a telling example.

A university also needs a certain volume to attain an adequate critical mass that in turn, is necessary to drive and develop education and research of high quality. Having said that, all Swedish universities need to think about their profile and strengths, or their offer, to continue to be attractive. For why study online at a Swedish university when the world is your oyster when it comes to online learning?

The experience I gained from my six years as President of the University of Skövde has been very beneficial for me. It has broadened my perspective and my “Stockholm bubble” view of universities and colleges has become far more balanced. Educated people are needed throughout Sweden, but it is not as simple as thinking that having a local university or university campus in a location is all it takes to persuade more people to want to live there. There are far more parameters that determine where and how people choose to live their lives.

The responsibility and the researcher

Many researchers have made their voices heard over the last few months. This is something I genuinely welcome. But it is not enough to refer to a study, you also need to take responsibility for what the results mean in practice, and present the method behind the interpretation that has been made.

The whole idea of both research as a debate is that opinions on the one hand are pitted against research findings and ideas on the other hand. It is in the interface and in the research presentation meeting that relevant and important knowledge emerges.

Simply sitting in opposite corners of the ring and referring to facts does not lead us forward. There is an extremely big need for answers and solutions especially during a crisis, such as in the midst of a pandemic. However, the hunger for specific answers must not and should not overshadow critical thinking and questioning. Nor for that matter, the meeting that genuinely moves research forwards.

Is this reasonable? What will the consequences of such a calculation be? These are some of all the many questions that ought to be part of a researcher’s arsenal, responsibilities and respectability. As are presenting your method – to enable someone else to repeat the experiment and hopefully get the same results – and the principles of selection. Putting your research in a relevant context, ensuring that other researchers within the same area have reviewed it before you publish the findings, also fall under the heading of good research etiquette.

All this may well be self-evident to most of us, but I would still advise prudence. Seeing how different research studies are now being picked up in earnest by the media is welcoming.

On the other hand, bashing each other  with different studies rarely leads to progress and risks devaluing and undermining the research instead. Not to mention creating confusion among the broad general public. Added to which, making important decisions on the basis of incomplete research, does not bode well for society.

 

 

New semester – new challenges

Walking up the hill on the KTH Campus on the first days of the autumn semester is, as usual, really fun. THS (Union for Technology Students) reception of our new students is in full swing. Even so, signs and plexiglass screens at the reception desks signal that nothing is as usual. We warmly welcome you all to a new semester where KTH is building a long-term sustainable way of working by combining a digital and a physical presence.

In the spring, we were suddenly faced with an entirely new situation and were forced to rethink the way we work in a very short space of time. Many people worked extremely hard to resolve this and most of our students and personnel had a new reality to become familiar with, where work and learning were done remotely. Many people probably hoped, as I did, that by autumn everything would be back to normal again and when the government announced their decision to reopen universities and colleges, we could all breathe out again. However, this is not yet really the case, even if developments in Sweden are much brighter right now.

Many people believe they possess  the right solution to prevent the spread of infection. We are swamped by wise advice and points of view on a daily basis. KTH is making the modifications appropriate for KTH in particular, based on the Public Health Agency of Sweden (FMH) recommendations . KTH is a university with a very specific operation. What is appropriate for another public authority or a company is quite simply not appropriate for a university. For example, take one of our main assignments, namely education. Right now, it is freshers weeks for around 3,500 new students. University study will be completely new for many of them, and we need to give all our new students the very best opportunities to start their studies while at the same time trying to ensure that KTH does not contribute to an increase in the spread of infection. It won’t be easy but we are going to manage.

When FHM on 30 July encouraged people to continue to work from home, they also reiterated that it is up to the employer and employee together, to decide if working from home is possible. The biggest concern right now according to FHM is not the spread of infection per se, which remains at a low and stable level, but what will happen with the infection rate when many people return to schools and workplaces. The biggest worry is crowding on public transport. Large gatherings of people at parties for example, are another area of concern. Our individual responsibility to maintain a social distance and practise good hand hygiene is incredibly important.

Even more important, FHM reiterated the consequences that can arise in the wake of being isolated at home for long periods without the opportunity to meet work colleagues or study buddies. To minimise these consequences in particular, KTH managers and their employees are together planning how a physical and digital presence respectively in the workplace can be organised for all employees. All activities are to be planned such that peak time travel is avoided and to avoid everyone being on site at the same time.

The situation for KTH students is that teaching will be a mix of physical and digital elements. A higher proportion of physical attendance will be prioritised for freshers and new international and national masters students in particular. Great care and consideration have been given to enable lab sessions to be performed without the risk of spreading infection.

I am convinced that with joint efforts we will get through this period and find ways forward. It will not be easy, but it will work. We will emerge from this period with new lessons learnt, insights and crucial research in our locker. As an added bonus, we will have made a rapid stride forward in optimising digital solutions.