Students are a reflection of their time

At the conference Current Priorities and Future Challenges: Higher Education in the Nordic Region, organised by the Swedish Higher Education Authority, the discussion covered subjects such as digitisation, quality and gender equality linked to higher education. Student representatives from the Nordic countries gave their views on what higher education needs and what it is lacking.

It was inspiring and thought-provoking and was also to a certain degree recognisable to anyone who has ever been a student.

In Sweden today, 400,000 people are studying and 40 years ago, that number was around 10,000. The fact that increasing numbers of people are gaining access to higher level studies is naturally positive. But a recurring view was that both resources and status in education have been undermined, and that expectations are not matched with the relevant resources or tools.

Doing something about this is a matter of urgency.

The student panel painted a fairly gloomy picture of reality, where today’s students are rushing through their respective courses and study programmes with the aim of adapting to the demands of the labour market, and are viewed more as products.

There is a lack of resources for both the programmes themselves and for students in terms of lower purchasing power for those living on student loans. Several panel members thought that all the fine words about education being inclusive, sustainable and available to all were insufficient if they lack substance in the daily life of the various campuses.

Some of them saw a risk in quantity becoming more important than quality.

Many exciting and thought-provoking views were presented. It’s clear, however, that each generation has its own particular challenges while having similar experiences.

Having a lack of money as a student, needing to work alongside your studies so that you have enough money to last the month – these problems seem to be timeless and something that every generation can recognise.

A higher pace in the form of the wealth of platforms available to offer information and knowledge is in itself a stress factor. This is something that people such as I, a student 40 years ago, do not recognise. At the same time, some people are saying that Swedish students take too long to complete their higher education (https://www.svensktnaringsliv.se/fragor/ett-utmanat-sverige/langliggare-pa-hogskolan-ett-vaxande-problem_713201.html in Swedish). A lot can be said about this.

However, I get many reports from international colleagues that students from KTH Royal Institute of Technology who travel out into the world for degree projects, for example, are highly appreciated. This is because they have greater knowledge and are better at independent projects compared to students who admittedly are younger but have not managed to acquire as much expertise.

Several of those on the panel saw how digitisation can change, and is already changing, how learning manifests and takes place. But many of them pointed out the importance for universities of developing learning in the digital learning environment. It’s not simply a matter of replacing paper with a mobile phone or tablet. The fact that face-to-face, whole-group lectures can be replaced by online lectures seemed to be embraced by many panellists, but on the other hand these can never fully replace meetings with a teacher.

Exchanging ideas, receiving encouragement, being challenged and deepening your knowledge in a meeting with a teacher is, and most likely always will be, crucial to knowledge acquisition. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from the English tutor system, where the pedagogical method varies but the teaching is based on recurring face-to-face meetings.

The challenge here is that, with 400,000 students in the Swedish system, more time is required for learning and teachers. More money for courses and study programmes, in simple terms.

Research has witnessed an increase in resources over the past ten years. It’s now time to do the same with education.

An increase in basic grants is required; competitive research funding is welcomed but it does not fund the crucial meetings between students and teachers. Because today’s students are tomorrow’s researchers, today’s researchers are ensuring that the students are receiving what is currently the most relevant knowledge, laying the foundations for competitive and innovative research tomorrow.

Soon it will be time to hit the hammock, and I hope everyone has a really pleasant summer! It’s a time for relaxation, but for many people, particularly teachers and researchers, it’s also a time of conferences and planning for the next semester. The university doesn’t shut just because the semester is over!