Higher education on export

Higher education is a growing global market in which Swedish universities should be more assertive and “contribute to global collective knowledge”. This sounds good, but unfortunately the interim report from the Internationalisation Inquiry to some extent pushes on an open door.

The fact that the international dimension is to be integrated in universities’ core activities and in associated rules and systems is all very well. But there is probably not one Swedish university that has not already included this aspect in its daily work and is working hard to further expand the exchange of knowledge and personnel.

As research like industrial know-how is interdisciplinary in nature, universities and other institutes of higher education have been historically quick to exchange knowledge – particularly concerning industrial innovations.

Without wishing to be too conceited, KTH Royal Institute of Technology is able to tick off many if not all of the measures suggested in the interim report.

But of course it’s good to do what is largely a thorough inquiry into internationalisation when new, strong knowledge nations are popping up all over the place.

But it would also be exciting to survey what they have that we don’t. And how they do what they do. In particular, those countries with universities that are making rapid progress in terms of their competitiveness are of interest in terms of understanding and perhaps being inspired by them.

As usual, part of the explanation lies in the volume of resources on offer, but that is obviously not the whole story. Unnecessarily complicated bureaucracy, but also the fact that the role of a public authority naturally involves compliance with rules and regulations.

Establishing a structure for regularly identifying obstacles is a good suggestion, as well as coordination to facilitate internationalisation. Attaching value to the fact that students who choose to spend a semester abroad are allowed to receive credits for this, even if it is not exactly equivalent to the course they were going to study at home in Sweden, and thus avoiding extending their studies. This is something that universities can facilitate even further.

I would, however, have liked a clearer and more explicit strategy regarding which parts of the world we should focus on and what priorities should be made and why.

The interim report states that internationalisation is not only seen as a necessary response to Sweden’s need to assert itself as a knowledge nation in the global competition, but also as an area that, in addition to the sphere of research and education policy, has a bearing on other policy areas such as aid, trade and migration. Internationalisation also allows for use of the tool that in the commission of inquiry is termed scientific diplomacy.

But it would be unfortunate if the inquiry were to risk falling into the trap of becoming too politicised and applying the one-size-fits-all principle.

Nobody, or at least very few people, disagree about the importance and necessity of greater internationalisation if Sweden as a knowledge nation is to be better able to assert itself.

The commission of inquiry also accommodates providing greater opportunities for universities to establish activities abroad. This is positive – but as always it’s important to analyse and identify the added value of satellite campuses in advance.

Some crucial components of Sweden growing as a knowledge nation internationally, as I see it:

– Let Swedish universities be bilingual; a unilateral transition to English makes it more difficult for international students and teachers to be active in Swedish society

– Enable credits to be awarded for international experience, with flexibility and openness to variations in length and location.

– Increase coordination so that the left hand (that is, the public authority) knows what the right hand is doing

– Develop a national internationalisation strategy that clearly conveys the long-term purpose and goal, with the higher education aspect clearly illustrated