Politics and principles

After four intensive days of Almedalen debates in early July, I can clearly say that none of the parties seems to be addressing university issues as part of their electioneering campaign. That these are not priority issues on the political agenda to debate and argue about is no surprise. But it is a pity and definitely something that ought to be discussed.

The fact is that high quality education and research are crucial for a country’s well-being and competitiveness. And when words such as skills training, skill shift and lifelong learning linger obstinately in the air, not just at seminars in Almedalen but also in debates, we need to take a closer look at them and nail down what they actually mean. A good and therefore in demand university programme is very important for both individuals and society. As President of one of the highest ranked institutes of technology in Europe, I think, perhaps not surprisingly, that this ought to be a higher priority, as education, in its various ways, not only concerns all of us but also Sweden’s place in the world and its well-being.

That people are talking about how the future job market will demand new skills and the increasing importance of us engaging in lifetime learning to keep pace, can only be a good thing. However, it is also something we have been seriously at odds about for a very long time. Now it is a question of building paths and education structures that actually work. In this context, it is important we get answers to questions such as: Who is going to foot the bill, who is going to make the decisions and who is going to take responsibility for this?

These seemingly short and simple questions beg answers that would enable us – universities, the enterprise sector and government bodies acting together – to give concepts such as lifelong learning and the future job market a specific meaning for people in the workforce today and to create the right conditions that will enable skills and demand to be well-matched in the future, too.

This autumn, several important inquiries will be published that will provide pointers to the direction higher education in Sweden should take. However, as already mentioned, there is a general election in the meantime and the wind can change. No matter what the election outcome, I would like to note the following:

The SULF (Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers) report on how compensation levels are falling behind in higher education, that was released in early summer, should be mandatory reading. It is headed Systems Error in the Knowledge Factory  (in Swedish)and compares  the kind of resources that were invested in the early 1990s and today. For example, in the case of courses within technology (plus science and pharmacy) costs exceed revenues by 42 percent, the report claims.

This is untenable. And something that many of my colleagues have likewise been pointing out for years. It’s not only a matter of needing to increase basic funding for higher education, we also need to look at what type of education we are talking about and let the differences be seen – science and technology programmes with important lab facilities must be allowed to cost more if we want Sweden to remain a leader in terms of education, teaching and research in this area.

An increase in basic funding is an important issue of principle that would address how existing resources for higher education are used. Should research grants be available from a number of different research funding bodies to which researchers have to apply in competition with each other? Or should the money be allocated directly to the education institutes within the parameters of an increase in basic funding. Research suggests that a high proportion of basic funding leads to higher quality research that has a greater impact (https://campi.kth.se/nyheter/mer-basanslag-ger-bast-forskning-1.809969 ). It would therefore appear not to be the case that competing for research resources per se, leads to the most effective research systems.

An increase in basic funding (education and research) is also discussed in the model proposal that was presented in early July from Styr- och resursutredningen (STRUT) (Public Inquiry into Management and Resources ). This should therefore be an urgent issue for politicians that often emphasis the role universities and colleges play in the image of Sweden and Swedish competitiveness to address.

The autumn semester is about to start at higher education institutes in Sweden. We at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm will be welcoming new students on our civil engineering and architecture programmes and new international students on masters’ programmes. All these students will be taking high quality courses that lead to benefits for society. It is therefore vital that the financing system enables us to continue to offer high quality education, teaching and research. The rate of change is accelerating all around us and if we universities are to keep up with this, the financing model for education and research must give us the necessary support to be able to do so.