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Resource model misses the mark

As parliament,last week on April 21, voted in favour of the government research bill recently presented, I feel compelled to return to my old hobby horse: Increase basic funding instead.
What worries me is the new model for allocating resources for research that will come into force in two years where strategic profiling will make the difference.

The thinking is, as far as I am aware, that the resources will be allocated in accordance with a new model to stimulate research and education at researcher level. This should then drive quality such that Swedish research will be able to better hold its own internationally.  To gain their share of these resources, universities will need to showcase their respective profile areas and the quality of these is to be evaluated by expert advisers to the government research councils.

The aim is said to be to broaden the concept of quality, which can sound laudable. But I have my doubts. Naturally, the current model in which two indicators are used to measure quality, is not perfect. Since 2009, bibliometrics (the number of publications and citations in scientific journals) and the amount of external funding, have been a model for reallocating part of basic funding for research and third cycle education.

It is always difficult to know whether what you do measure is what you actually want to measure, as is whether the results enable accurate comparisons. However profiling, where each university is to apply for an allocation, risks having the opposite effect. Plus, it indicates an inability to prioritise. Is the aim to boost the international competitiveness of the universities or to strengthen research and third cycle education at both large and small universities in the whole of Sweden? The proposal now presented does neither.

 From the proposal now resolved on it is clear that the idea of profile areas comes from the was the  Inquiry on Governance and Resources (STRUT) (SOU 2019: 6). University profiling and the need for more dialogue were discussed there, but how this goes together with the profile areas now being launched and the coming announcement on applications, is less clear.

More dialogue is by necessity not the same thing as universities being required to apply for resources. On the other hand, there is an expectation of being able to discuss goals and strategies in greater detail for the chosen profiling of a university.  Replacing one system (bibliometrics and external funding as indicators) that passively measures results with a system where the universities are going to have to allocate time to apply for what in practice is relatively meagre funding, feels like a waste of resources. And it will be a case of meagre resources, as all universities, according to this line of thinking, are to be guaranteed that they will get at least one profile area.

Which brings us back to where we started. Why not let the universities decide for themselves to a greater extent by raising basic funding instead? Sometimes, commendable aims can cloud the view as it is perhaps more about taking greater control. In which case, there will be less room for manoeuvre in the pot of jam.

Common sense and ethics can show the way

Can I accept an invitation to lunch in connection with a meeting with a supplier? Can I accept a present from a student? Can I as a researcher, use KTH premises for my own purposes? I often mention the public service ethos and am happy to do so. It is important and helps us navigate our way correctly when we face a dilemma, whether large or small, no matter what role you have at KTH.

Sometimes it can seem self-evident what you can and should do. What is right and what is wrong respectively. However, many of us are bound to have experienced a borderline case, whether it crosses the line is not blindingly obvious, and in such cases it can be difficult to decide if it could count as a bribe. In which case, the safest approach is always to say no.

As an employee at KTH, a university and public body, we have a different system of values to abide by. For example, according to the Higher Education Act, we should uphold the principles of scientific integrity and best research practices. According to the Instrument of Government, our work should be characterised by respect for the equal value of everyone and as mentioned, the public service ethos with its six principles; democracy, legality, objectivity, freedom of expression, respect for equality, freedom and dignity, plus efficiency and service.

Ethics can be forgotten in the stresses of everyday life and a hasty action can at first sight, seem like a simple way out.  But this can have serious consequences for an organisation, especially if this builds into a system. Which is why ethical issues must be constantly, regularly and openly discussed, and dilemmas and questions aired in the light of new situations a public sector employee is faced with in a changing world. Lively conversations about these issues in the break room, in the lab and in classrooms are the best protection.

Otherwise, confidence in an organisation such as KTH risks being nibbled away at the edges and our banner will start to wobble uneasily. In an organisation that is based on meritoriousness, equal treatment and responsibility, there is no room for non-merit based appointments and cutting corners. Like other public bodies, we have a number of guidelines that point the way concerning everything from side jobs to conflicts of interest and corruption. (check this)

Loss of faith in KTH, or any university for that matter, can in the long run mean that confidence in both public bodies, academia and democracy itself will be undermined.

These issues are neither easy nor black and white. Common sense and awareness go a long way. As noted, if you are unsure about what is right or wrong in a work situation, purely ethically, sound out one or two colleagues.

That’s what I usually do.




A student life in constant change

What is it like to be a student at KTH? It is easy to think you know the answer if you studied at KTH yourself, even if it was years ago.  Thanks to the excellent collaboration with our students via THS, we can gain an insight into what it has been like – before, during and hopefully soon shortly after a pandemic.

When I walked up Drottning Kristinas väg for the very first time in 1977, I felt a bit odd and nervous due to my background. Nobody in my family had ever been to university before, and especially not to study engineering. But I had made up my mind, like Pippi Longstocking, I to take charge of my life and continued resolutely up the hill. It was exciting and big.

I realised pretty quickly that I would have to spend at least 40 hours a week on my studies to stay the distance. In association with the university reforms that were introduced that same year, students were given the right to play an active role in board work at universities and colleges, along with the right to be a member of programme boards and department boards. Since the year 2000, paragraph four includes the words Students should have the right to have a say in their education at universities. Universities should endeavour to enable students to play an active part in work to further develop courses.

Such exchanges of information and views with our students are an important element in developing our study programmes in line with the times and from a quality perspective. This can not only concern questions about study programmes but also things like the optimal length for a lecture, how teaching can be made more accessible or proposals for items on a course.

Over the course of this year, we have been battling in various ways to rearrange teaching and other activities with only certain elements on campus and the rest remotely. And our teachers – and students have had to battle the most to achieve results.

In the first (of four) sub report (in Swedish) that was published last week from UKÄ  on how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted universities and colleges, it is clear that students have managed to perform pretty much as well as the year before. But the social side of studying has been severely affected. Many students have felt lonely, isolated and have missed their fellow students and normal life as a consequence of the reset.

I am therefore especially pleased about all the initiatives that have been taken at KTH to overcome this and make things that bit easier and more fun until this miserable time is over. THS has also, with our support, launched a number of activities for both international and Swedish students, that are proving very popular.

This collaboration with students through THS has become a  great cooperation.

Gender equality is a matter of course for a modern university

KTH engineering programmes are changing all the time to suit the outside world and the job market. Including knowledge about gender equality and sustainable development as part of degree programmes is self-evident for a modern university  – educating people for the future.

Last week, an article was published on our website and some of the reactions to it surprised me. But then it struck me that they rather should be taken as confirmation of just how important it is to drive these issues – that basically concern democracy and justice.

That everyone should have an equal opportunity to apply and, on being accepted, also to study at KTH is of the very greatest importance.

Partly because this benefits the individual naturally, and partly because it strengthens society and in the longer term, is also vital for Swedish competitiveness.

That talented individuals, regardless of gender, with different perspectives, ideas and thoughts, are needed for the development of both society in general and technology in particular, is axiomatic to me.

Perhaps this is especially vital within the technology knowledge sphere that by tradition has many times been primarily a male bastion.

In all the years I have worked at KTH, the issue of promoting talent regardless of gender has been a headache for management irrespective of which government has been in power at the time. Sometimes it is mostly in relation to the numerical imbalance – only 19 percent of our professors are women today.

With an ingrained culture, it will take time to change long-standing patterns in terms of how the capabilities of different people can best be utilised and included. But it can be done.

The effects will become clear by reproducing this on more and more levels and in break rooms in a workplace.

Extensive research has shown for example, that enjoyment, efficiency and productivity all increase when working groups are mixed.  Gender equality is one of our four pillars that both support and drive KTH forwards. (The others are sustainable development, digitalisation and internationalisation.)

Accordingly, as noted, study items about gender equality will be part of all our degree programmes from this coming autumn.

It is no more complicated than that.

Good results despite the pandemic

Sometimes, I am amazed that we’ve been living in the shadow of the pandemic for almost a year now. A year of changes, new solutions, cancelled meetings and uncertainty.

Nonetheless, our annual report for 2020 shows that KTH has managed reasonably well. KTH Annual Report (in Swedish).

The number of applicants for our various different study programmes who put KTH as their first choice, increased from 5,706 to 6,327. As usual, the most attractive programmes were Architecture, Computer Engineering, Industrial Engineering and Management and Engineering Physics. Our new Master of Science in Engineering Mathematics was also very popular. Our English language one and two-year Master’s Programmes also attracted many applications compared to the year before.

Exchange activities have for self-explanatory reasons, been badly affected however, and many students who had planned to study abroad were forced to rethink.

The number of students completing their degree is roughly the same level as the year before. In the case of Master of Science in Engineering degrees, the proportion of female graduates has increased slightly from 35 to 37 percent. Among the architects where women are overweighted, there was a slight movement in the other direction from 57 percent female to 55 percent in 2020. While these are small changes, they are worth noting as they show that we are on the right track in efforts to make KTH accessible to all.

Last March, almost exactly one year ago, we switched all our programmes to remote learning and in so doing, began our journey to an increasingly digitalised learning environment. However, we are never going to entirely replace the physical presence, the proximity and meetings on our campuses with their digital equivalents. No, we are going to combine the best of both worlds to build the learning of the future.

I continue to scroll further through our near 100-page annual report. External financing for research has fallen and direct government funding has not been able to be utilised in full as the switch to digital education has to a certain extent, taken the time and focus of our teachers away from research due to the demands of education. At the same time, resources have been made available for important Covid-19 research where KTH has been very successful. I can say not without pride, that KTH can mobilise its research quickly and effectively.

For many of us, not being able to meet fellow students or work colleagues for a year can feel draining and the lack of contact tiring. Even so, we have delivered and I look forward to coming semesters and years of development and new meetings.