The power of having and finding role models

The 8th March every year gives rise to a concentrated cluster of equality issues, analyses and events. This is always pleasing to see, even if it can paint a bleak picture of how far we have come in terms of equality. It is taking such a long time and there is still a great deal still to be done – despite the fact that many people seem pretty much agreed that equality is a question of quality and therefore of critical importance for Swedish competitiveness.

Like many other organisations, KTH addresses these issues on an everyday basis. Questions such as, for example, how can we persuade more girls to want to become engineers? How can we make academic career paths attractive? Or how can we create an equal organisation and a workspace that works, in this respect? A safe workspace is crucial if we are to maximise all our talents, both male and female.

We have numerous initiatives and ideas of how to do this. But I would like to come back to the idea of role models – that is to say, the picture of those who have gone before us. Because there always has to be someone who is the first and some one or several others who follow in their footsteps.

The Karolinska Institute, Malmö University and KTH have chosen to lead the way in launching a research and cooperation project that aims to combat sexual harassment and gender-based vulnerability in academia. The thinking is that we, as knowledge institutions, and also in this case employers, know how to develop and gather knowledge to map these issues in the form of instances, causes and consequences within the whole of academia and its categories – teachers, researchers, students, administration personnel etc.

At the introductory seminar, someone argued that three decades of policies and education have clearly not been enough to bridge the gap between knowledge and action. However, the more comprehensive and correct picture we have of the lay of the land at our universities, the more we can be oriented to change things that are foul and rotten. An international high quality education and research environment such as KTH, needs equal and good conditions, that will then make the study and work environment a more attractive and creative place.

Apropos role models. this makes me think of singer-songwriter Robyn who launched the Tekla Festival four years ago in partnership with KTH, to inspire and encourage young girls to investigate technology together with female role models. This year, the festival is being exported.

In partnership with the Swedish Institute and the Swedish Embassy, the festival was launched internationally in Washington DC on 8-9 March.

A big thanks to all of you who lead the way.

Know-how loss must be discussed more

Last week, a report came out showing that the number of foreign students who would like to study in Stockholm is steadily growing. The number of incoming students is back to the same level as when tuition fees were introduced in 2011. Many of these are choosing KTH. But what happens then?

The fact that Stockholm ranks high on the list of innovation hubs is bound to help here, plus there are many attractive universities. If KTH, KI and SU were to put their wise heads together, or their rankings more like, we could together place in the top ten of the world rankings. KTH’s broad range of technology courses that are in close proximity to internationally competitive research makes these courses attractive.

That students who complete first and second cycle education choose to go back home or try their luck on the global job market, is perhaps no surprise. However, there is a conspicuously big drop in the number of students choosing to take a doctoral degree. In 2016, over one in three doctoral students came from countries outside Sweden, according to a Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) report published last year. Around 81 percent of women and 86 percent of men respectively had become established three years after completing their PhD within technology. On the other hand, foreign doctoral graduates very largely leave Stockholm and Sweden.

After two years, approximately 80 percent of foreign PhD graduates at KTH had left the city. That is a massive know-how loss, a competence that we naturally ought to utilise on the Swedish job market instead. In recent years, we have noticed falling interest from Swedish students in continuing third cycle education. To devote at least another four years of in-depth study, might appear less appealing if the Swedish job market does not set much store by a doctoral degree. This is something KTH needs to discuss more with society and the enterprise sector, because it may be that the answer to it also coincides with why international students who complete a Swedish PhD also leave Sweden.

Pinpointing a reason is neither meaningful nor straightforward as we are talking about individuals who complete their PhD. Difficulties in obtaining a resident’s permit and somewhere to live, not least in Stockholm, are critical factors and have been discussed and named many times over. If we then add lukewarm interest from the Swedish job market for third cycle graduates, we won’t see more third cycle graduates on the Swedish job market.

KTH is an international university and knowledge exchange and meetings between students and researchers from different countries is one of the linchpins in the basic values of both KTH and academia.



The inquiry that doesn´t choose

The eagerly awaited inquiry into how universities and colleges should be managed and financed in the long term, for perhaps the next 30 years, has finally published its findings. Unfortunately however, the Inquiry (STRUT) has fallen into the classic inquiry trap by being too timid to come off the fence and make definite choices and therefore also unable to reject other options.

The inquiry is verbose and, to my mind, leaves far too many big gaps, which makes it both superficial and nebulous at the same time. It would probably have been better instead to focus more on the questions at issue and deal with these in more depth. They seem to be kicking the can along the road and leaving important issues for another day and possible future inquiries.

This in turn, obviously means that it will take longer for necessary changes to be implemented. Patience is a virtue when it comes to reading the 468-page thick report and even in terms the rate of change.

But the inquiry also has a plus side, naturally. There is a great deal that is good in it. The increase in basic funding is welcome. And that this funding is common rather than being earmarked for education and research respectively. This allows for greater freedom of movement for the universities and probably a healthier working environment for researchers relieved of the stress associated with having to chase new funding. It is also good that they propose to eliminate the performance element for students.

However, what quite clearly spoils the picture for KTH is that the differentiated education allowance is being abolished. This will hit technology and science education environments that need a specialised infrastructure particularly hard. As I wrote in an earlier blog post about how this affects our students and Sweden’s competitiveness within research in the longer perspectiveIt. It is regrettable that the inquiry seems to have been looking at universities in the broad, and here too, there is a lack of in-depth analysis.

Making the role of universities clear and regulating this when it comes to lifelong learning is another good proposal. However, here I would ideally have liked to see further clarification of the shared responsibilities of job market organisations, individuals and the universities. It is extremely worrying that no money has been set aside for this, however. This also indicates the sense of uncertainty the inquiry appears to be suffering from to an extent. Combined funding by all means, but there is a big risk that the already hollowed out funding will be pledged to new assignments.

When it comes to standards such as academic freedom and collegial influence etc., the inquiry proposes that these should once again be regulated in the Higher Education Act. A more detailed discussion on standards would have been appropriate, especially as university autonomy has been a mantra in recent years. Can you regulate standards or are standards something that emerge based on needs and, in which case, are yesterday’s standards the right ones here and now? What I feel is missing in “A long-term, coordinated and dialogue-based management of higher education” is some forward looking, outward orientated and inclusive thinking concerning the sector’s role and its benefits to society, that taxpayers can also embrace.

Equality is given its own chapter, which is good, but key and for the dialogue vital issues concerning sustainable development, internationalisation and digitalisation are absent.

High expectations for the new minister

Last week I went to the annual presidents meeting in Steningevik organised by the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) and the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF). The carrot is usually that the Minister for Higher Education and Research attends and explains which way the political winds are blowing within the sector. This year was different as the government had only been formed the day before the meeting. The name of the new minister was probably unfamiliar to many of us although expectations were high.

Matilda Ernkrans, the new Minister for Higher Education and Research, has, like her two predecessors, no previous experience of the sector.

There has been a discussion about the minister’s prior knowledge and expertise and the lack of an academic degree.   An interview with her on Swedish Radio triggered a stream of comments on social media ( ).

Naturally, many of us wonder whether higher education and research is given priority by the new government, given that the minister is someone who has studied at university but without finishing a degree.

Does this mean that higher education and research is being given a lower priority or should it be interpreted as tremendous faith that we 75,000 employees and some 400,000 students can drive and develop the sector in a good way?

Another reflection is that the Ministry of Higher Education and Research appears to be an entry point for entirely untried ministers. Various other ministers in the government have held a long list of other ministerial posts, so I wonder why this area in particular is not deemed worthy of someone with previous experience of being a minister.

Having said that, we have now gained a minister who is well versed in politics and parliamentary/committee work, which is probably an advantage.

Rather than providing a more extended presentation of her views on the sector and the future, the minister gave a short speech over dinner.

Anything more was probably not to be expected as it was her first day at work. It was very largely the same as the previous government had stood for and most of what was said was included in the statement of government policy. The question of when work on the new research proposition would be started was not answered.

And maybe the Governance and Resource Inquiry (STRUT) is likely to recommend an education and research proposition. STRUT will submit its proposal to the minister on 1 February.

During the meeting in Steningevik, we were given a great deal of information from civil servants at the Department of Education, including concerning the budgets for government authorities in general and the universities in particular. A new budget process is being started straightaway and it is likely that we will see an amended spring budget on 15 April with bigger changes than is usually the case at this time of the year. However, I think the bigger moves are more likely to be found in the autumn budget.

Bold reforms on the wish list

Swedish universities have tended to slide in the international rankings in recent years. This is due to various reasons, of which the most significant is the lack of clear national strategies and prioritising within higher education.

There is no correlation between education and research of high quality and how the two are integrated when it comes to what the rankings measure. The rankings do not paint a complete picture – particularly when you bear in mind that our universities play different roles on a national basis. Hopefully, once a new government is in place in the near future, a number of vital reforms can be considered.

I would like to highlight three areas that are crucial for the university sector where changes must be made to lift Sweden as a knowledge nation:

  1. Increased basic funding for research and third-cycle education

A report by SUHF  shows that the system with external funding corresponds to a quality degradation of 10-20 percent and in monetary terms, between four and eight billion kronor less per year. Increasing basic funding would reduce the time researchers have to spend fundraising, time that they can dedicate to research instead.

In addition, an increase in basic funding would also mean that universities and researchers themselves can develop and profile research areas rather than having their hands tied by political and societal forces in terms of what research should be pursued. When external government financing bodies make announcements, this often concerns areas where the international research front has already reached the commercialisation stage. Bold new ideas are given less room.

  1. The education and research infrastructure

Infrastructure in the form of laboratories, computers, equipment, instruments etc., is the very life blood of high quality education and research. As we now move towards universities having to finance much of this infrastructure themselves without a corresponding increase in funding, this puts the quality of education at risk.

Much of what is sometimes called research infrastructure is extensively used in education. Our students must be given the opportunity to learn with modern equipment. How will the digitalisation of society be managed if students are not able to use the latest technology in this area during their studies? This infrastructure is also highly relevant for continuing and further education (lifelong learning).

  1. The role of universities and their ability to achieve high quality

Most politicians are prepared to agree that Sweden should be an internationally prominent knowledge nation. However, there are certain consequences with this. For example, one can then start to question whether it is reasonable for all universities to have the same role and how many universities and colleges there should be. In Sweden, only a small handful of universities are ranked in the top 100-200 positions.

These rankings are an indication of international visibility and they show where Sweden stands as a knowledge nation on the global stage. To my mind, the new government must think about how the university and college sector should be changed in order to become stronger.

Our neighbouring countries have already done several changes. In Denmark for example, many universities and institutes were merged several years ago. Reforms in this direction have also been implemented in Finland. The latest is a merger of a new Tampere University .