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Autonomy with obstacles?

It’s time for my last blog as President of KTH, an occasion tinged with sadness, but also some relief.

There have been various recurring themes over the past six years. One of them is that we are our research, our education and our collaborations – yet we also work for our taxpayers. We have extensive freedom within certain frameworks to run a university the way we wish, but this freedom is sometimes hindered by only minor increases in basic funding – a common problem that is by no means only my own.

For a university like KTH, these two fundamental areas can be in conflict, to the detriment of the operation, but also of each other. Things get out of balance. Especially since universities are subject to laws and regulations which, although occasionally updated, came into force many years ago. In addition there are traditions and previous efforts to consider.

But society is changing far more quickly, as are the universities and the environment in which they operate – for instance when it comes to international competition, cutting-edge research and lifelong learning, where speed and flexibility can be key in staying competitive globally.

Slowness in a system can of course be of great value as a safety margin in major, socially subversive events – but not when a university wants to test the limits within the framework of its mandate. As universities, we are encouraged to interpret regulations in such a way that we can create relevant conditions under which to conduct high-quality education and research. One important foundation for a competitive university is to be an attractive employer, with a culture of mutual respect and inclusiveness.

Academia is still very much a conservative sector, and it doesn’t make things easier when interpretations of regulations brings about repercussions and hand-slapping, because apparently the interpretation was wrong for some reason or other. I would like to see more discussion about interpretation, and also possibly the need to revise and update both the Higher Education Act and the Higher Education Ordinance. This would benefit the autonomy and quality in higher education and research.

As leaders for a university, we must have the courage to look more forwards than backwards when it comes to how universities can best continue to be competitive. A regulation may well have been fit for purpose when it was introduced, but it could serve as more of an obstacle in terms of harnessing future opportunities and bringing universities even more into line with the times.  The courage just mentioned is about daring to let go of the old, and lay a new foundation for developing the working environment for education and research. Courage is also about prioritising which parts are worth preserving.

Having an open university, accessible to everyone regardless of gender and background, but with the right expertise, is crucial in order to attract talent, whether domestic or international. Unless the freedom is in parity with the mandate, the result could be autonomy with obstacles.

A big thank you to all the students, teachers, researchers, administrators and collaboration partners with whom I’ve crossed paths these past six years.