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If academic freedom becomes law

There is a proposal to rewrite the first section of the Swedish Higher Education Act with effect from 1 July next year. In addition to listing lifelong learning as part of university activities, academic freedom will also be entered into the Act. That is a good thing per se, but increased control without increased resources risks sounding better than it is.

Academic freedom not only includes freedom to research, that is already protected by the Act, but also educational freedom. In the government PM, they talk about the concepts of the free search for knowledge and the free dissemination of knowledge. Here, it is important to maintain a clear separation between educational freedom and academic freedom. The free search for knowledge is definitely not the same as educational freedom. Added to which, the concept of freedom of teaching is also used, which further complicates the issue.

Education should, and this is clearly regulated, be comparable throughout the country. A teacher’s freedom in this context is not to entirely autonomously decide what the teaching or course should contain, but rather how teaching can be pursued in terms of methodology and pedagogics. For KTH, which is a degree programme university in the main, there are decisions about programmes and courses that are taken after quality assessment procedures before they are offered to students.

In terms of how education is anchored in research, a teacher has the educational freedom to include research findings. On the other hand,  the Higher Education Ordinance system of qualifications includes requirements on general qualifications and professional qualifications,  which are necessary to ensure comparability within the same type of programme. Educational freedom is different to academic freedom as this ultimately affects a group of individuals, namely the students that take a course or a programme.

Another objection is that as the first section of the Higher Education Act is seen as the university equivalent of other public authority instructions, this should be reviewed for example in annual reports and evaluations. How then should freedom be translated in practice? And how should it then be measured and weighed? It is important that this too should be clarified if the amendment is to become reality next year.

The amendment concerning academic freedom can seem to be an unnecessary reinforcement bearing in mind that what has already been said is safeguarded in the same paragraph that establishes a researcher’s right to research into what they want to do, freely choose their method and thereafter freely publish the results. But on the other hand, it must be said that this can never be sufficiently safeguarded.

 In a discussion that was organised last week by Rifo, a group of MPs and researchers, it was stressed that things like academic freedom, media and civil rights are the first to go when democracy is dismantled. Academic freedom also includes academic responsibility, of for example, taking responsibility for output or training the next generation of researchers.

During my time within the sector, I have seen how university and college activities have become increasingly regulated – sometimes in great detail. This is a worrying development. If expertise, creativity and quality are to go hand in hand, there must be the space and resources to enable this.

However, it is also incredibly important that we use these definitions correctly, continue the debate, without getting bogged down in the undergrowth of interpretations.