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A higher education policy reflecting the sector´s reality is needed

In Sweden, higher education institutions are national concerns as they are funded through taxes and the state is the principal for the vast majority of institutions. This means that, ultimately, the development of the academic sector is based on political decisions made by Sweden’s parliament and government. What is also needed, therefore, is a higher education policy that formulates this responsibility, and defines goals and roadmaps for the development of the sector.

A higher education policy might, for instance, include position statements on the role of education in democratic development and the provision of skills for society, and the importance of research in improving competitiveness and societal progress. A higher education policy agenda could also include core values to protect, such as the institutional autonomy of universities and freedom for students, teachers and researchers to seek out knowledge. The higher education policy would be based on the individual institution’s development needs to enable it to contribute to overall developments in society in the best possible way.

The difference between what we have today and what the higher education sector needs to be, is therefore an expression of the reform that’s needed in the sector. Perhaps the funding system needs to be restructured, perhaps reforms are needed to bolster autonomy, or maybe changes are needed in the admissions procedure to bring higher education more in line with society’s need for skills and expertise. Depending on the ideology and goals, different reform catalogues could be formulated as a foundation for the hard work of drafting reports and bills. So essentially, the standard way of producing policy.

The concern for further education is that while it is the recipient of considerable state resources, it is not an important area in its own right. Higher education is needed to meet challenges in other areas: for example to help achieve the energy transition, provide skills for a changing labour market, or to help solve problems regarding equality in the school system. That’s all well and good.

But far more rarely does anyone ask the question: What do the institutions themselves need if they are to build a strong operation for the good of society? The important matter of the institutions’ own needs if they are to serve as a crucial force in all areas of society, long-term, has been completely absent from any negotiating table during recent governments’ terms of office.

Having said that, maybe it doesn’t matter that much. The higher education sector is robust! There is economic scope and there are great cohorts of staff doing an excellent job, even though higher education policy itself is being ignored. Ground-breaking research is still being done, and universities and other higher education institutions are continuously developing and updating their programmes to meet the needs of students and the labour market.

Even so, something feels off. The risk of not having a higher education policy is that institutions become easy prey when other issues come to the fore. If for example a security-policy issue should arise, the temptation may be to take swift, ineffective action to the detriment of the higher education sector. Or if, say, 180 million kronor is needed somewhere in the political sphere – surely this can be taken from the apparently so well-funded higher education sector, as it doesn’t have a particularly robust reform agenda in any case, and it’s an area of low political interest.

This is what could happen if, like Alice in Wonderland, you don’t know – and don’t much care – where you’re going. But it is certainly an interpretation that is a bit exaggerated.