The importance of academian freedom

It is now three weeks since the general election in Sweden and we are still none the wiser when it comes to forming a government. Is politics important for higher education in Sweden? My answer is obviously yes. Although universities and colleges have a more independent stance than most other government authorities, we still work on behalf of taxpayers.

Over the years, a long line of private financing bodies, such as various family foundations, have appeared that support research at our universities.

However, one thing I do know is that a high-quality university sector that works well is something that all politicians ought to consider as the highest priority.

Several issues are of utmost urgency for the incoming government. Some of these are related to being successful on the international stage, others concern increasing basic funding for education and research. It is crucial that basic funding is increased for education, otherwise being able to maintain high quality will gradually become more and more difficult.

Our universities have a relatively high degree of autonomy, (something I can appreciate) not least in my role as a board member of Vinnova when I see the monthly reconciliation process between the Director General and the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation.

This is not the case for a university president. As President of KTH, I have tremendous freedom to develop KTH to the best of my ability and that of our employees as well.

Freedom of research is enshrined in the Universities Act and the Higher Education Ordinance, more specifically with regard to the free choice of the research subject. Within the Swedish higher education community, we increasingly talk about the need to also give education the same status. At the same time, KTH, as with other government bodies, must adhere to fundamental government values,  that in part concern objectivity and free opinion building.

The development of the scope of universities to ensure we work in an optimal way for the benefit of Sweden and society, is a continuous process. Being able to act on the international stage and sign agreements between KTH and international parties is a kind of freedom that calls for a certain degree of innovation.

The most recent Times Higher Education (THE) rankings  show that many Swedish universities have fallen down the rankings. One important question in this context is whether Swedish universities have the right platform to be an international presence. Having said that, I think it is becoming increasingly difficult to relate to a more troubled world. What is right and what is wrong when it comes to international cooperation is not always crystal clear.

The same applies to cooperation in general – of regulating in contracts how research findings that are the result of a joint project should be utilised, can sometimes be difficult precisely because universities are government bodies.

We in the university sector are often pretty inward looking and believe society and the enterprise sector know as much about our issues as we do ourselves. This is rarely the case. We need to take greater responsibility in inviting involvement in issues that are important to us and explaining and entering into dialogue on these issues.

A proper understanding of academia is necessary in order to be able to make wise political decisions on higher education and research. By being open and transparent and sharing our knowledge, we can contribute to good political decisions. KTH can then continue to offer programmes that impress employers and in so doing, compete on an increasingly competitive university market.