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Dare we invest more in strong universities?

When I went to school a long time ago, the clever kids often had to hold back and wait for the big group in the middle to catch up. Average became the yardstick and equality become more important than leading the way forward. Sadly, this kind of reasoning is also rearing its head again 50 years later at universities – where nobody is allowed to stand out or be permitted to shine. Then as now, there were different qualifications for being really good, and even today, there is not enough support for those who do not reach the requirements.

KTH has a leading position internationally within AI/digitalisation, energy, the life sciences and materials and other areas, for example. However, I still see no clear political will to think beyond “education in the whole country, safe campuses and research for societal challenges”. These three things are the focus for the Minister for Higher Education and Research. Here, there’s no room to debate a need to prioritise between universities or areas of knowledge.

It is high time we think about how Sweden’s position as a knowledge nation should be strengthened. This includes creating the right conditions for education and research. Universities and colleges ought to be able to have clear and differentiated briefs where grants and investments are tailored to match these briefs. As president and managers, we often hear that we lack the ability to prioritise. Unfortunately, prioritising is missing at national level. There is a belief that everyone should do everything at the same time, instead. The art of choosing and eliminating is obviously difficult. But uncertainty is worse and risks leading to stagnation.

This does not mean that any one brief is less good or better than another.  Concentrating on what you are best at not only raises the quality of each respective university but also raises the level in general. Gaining the opportunity to do the greatest good not only benefits the individual research group and university respectively, but also over time, benefits the country’s competitiveness. That there could be a hidden reserve of talent that we can tap into for education and research via this way of thinking is not something I subscribe to. The whole world is open to young people and researchers of today at a time when the world is teeming with talent.

A report on leading edge research in Sweden (Spetsforskning i Sverige) published by the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise , seeks explanations for why Swedish research has lost its attractiveness, based on interviews with six leading international researchers. The report makes for thought provoking reading with claims such as Swedish universities and their recruitment culture are characterised by “safety first, indolence and inertia”.  This is compared to a culture of excellence and cut throat competition.

Being able to prioritise in education and research briefs will be absolutely imperative not only within universities but also at national level in government and parliament. Only then will higher education and research be able to remain internationally competitive. There are several questions I would love to be given answers to, such as how different types of university should be able to rise in the rankings based on their position or what rooted in research means in reality. And last but not least, dare we invest even more in strong universities that are already internationally competitive?