The inquiry that doesn´t choose

The eagerly awaited inquiry into how universities and colleges should be managed and financed in the long term, for perhaps the next 30 years, has finally published its findings. Unfortunately however, the Inquiry (STRUT) has fallen into the classic inquiry trap by being too timid to come off the fence and make definite choices and therefore also unable to reject other options.

The inquiry is verbose and, to my mind, leaves far too many big gaps, which makes it both superficial and nebulous at the same time. It would probably have been better instead to focus more on the questions at issue and deal with these in more depth. They seem to be kicking the can along the road and leaving important issues for another day and possible future inquiries.

This in turn, obviously means that it will take longer for necessary changes to be implemented. Patience is a virtue when it comes to reading the 468-page thick report and even in terms the rate of change.

But the inquiry also has a plus side, naturally. There is a great deal that is good in it. The increase in basic funding is welcome. And that this funding is common rather than being earmarked for education and research respectively. This allows for greater freedom of movement for the universities and probably a healthier working environment for researchers relieved of the stress associated with having to chase new funding. It is also good that they propose to eliminate the performance element for students.

However, what quite clearly spoils the picture for KTH is that the differentiated education allowance is being abolished. This will hit technology and science education environments that need a specialised infrastructure particularly hard. As I wrote in an earlier blog post about how this affects our students and Sweden’s competitiveness within research in the longer perspectiveIt. It is regrettable that the inquiry seems to have been looking at universities in the broad, and here too, there is a lack of in-depth analysis.

Making the role of universities clear and regulating this when it comes to lifelong learning is another good proposal. However, here I would ideally have liked to see further clarification of the shared responsibilities of job market organisations, individuals and the universities. It is extremely worrying that no money has been set aside for this, however. This also indicates the sense of uncertainty the inquiry appears to be suffering from to an extent. Combined funding by all means, but there is a big risk that the already hollowed out funding will be pledged to new assignments.

When it comes to standards such as academic freedom and collegial influence etc., the inquiry proposes that these should once again be regulated in the Higher Education Act. A more detailed discussion on standards would have been appropriate, especially as university autonomy has been a mantra in recent years. Can you regulate standards or are standards something that emerge based on needs and, in which case, are yesterday’s standards the right ones here and now? What I feel is missing in “A long-term, coordinated and dialogue-based management of higher education” is some forward looking, outward orientated and inclusive thinking concerning the sector’s role and its benefits to society, that taxpayers can also embrace.

Equality is given its own chapter, which is good, but key and for the dialogue vital issues concerning sustainable development, internationalisation and digitalisation are absent.