President's editorial: We need strong, innovative universities

At the end of January, IVA and the Ministry for Education and Research arranged a seminar on future research policy. This well-attended and much appreciated event gathered more than 200 individuals representing academies, foundations and companies, as well as Matilda Ernkrans, Minister for Higher Education and Research. It was gratifying to hear the cabinet minister, in her opening speech, indicate that innovation will be a focus of the next research bill. IVA welcomes that.
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Research, education and innovation need to be regarded as one whole. The bill should be part of a national strategy for innovative knowledge, increased competitiveness and sustainability. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether the Swedish system of education, research and innovation is optimally equipped to reach these goals. There have been many steps in the right direction in knowledge policy in recent years. But are these enough in the face of an increasingly tough climate of international competition where new, strong knowledge economies are gaining ground, not least in Asia? The culture in Sweden is in part responsible for reform and decision-making being drawn out processes. In theory we have a solid foundation for future knowledge production, with multiple studies under our belt on resource allocation, autonomy, governance functions, internationalisation and much more. But in practice the reform process has been relatively cautious, which has contributed to uncertainty about the direction we’re heading in.

Sweden needs strong, innovative universities and a system that promotes high-quality research, education and collaboration. Let’s take a look at how our competitors are doing. According to Times Higher Education, the Netherlands has seven universities among the 100 best in the world and it’s developing the fastest as an innovation nation. According to two professors with a background in that country – and who participated in the seminar – the biggest difference between Sweden and the Netherlands is that the latter has had the courage to invest in excellence. We have a university sector made up of many universities that have various, but vital, roles to play in developing society. But we lack a clear strategy to develop them into institutions at the absolute forefront internationally. Today there are only two Swedish universities among the 100 best ones, the same number as tiny Singapore.

Quality needs to be emphasised and the system of governance and funding needs to promote innovative research and commercialisation of research results to solve the challenges of today and tomorrow. This means having the courage to prioritise cutting-edge research that paves the way for entirely new knowledge and lays the foundation for new innovation in industry and throughout society. It’s also important to reward universities for successful collaboration. Today, collaborative activities are not valued enough and stronger incentives are needed to ensure that research results are put to use. The long-term nature of research means that not all researchers can be “innovative” at the same time, but what we can do is to value and reward research to find pathways at the university level. There is currently only one Swedish university among the 100 best in Europe on Reuter’s list of the most innovative universities (2019). The Netherlands has nine. It’s often the same universities that land at the top of the lists for both academic excellence and innovation.

IVA has high hopes for the research bill this autumn. When the economy starts to weaken, this is a sign that it’s time to give knowledge production a boost, not to reduce investment in it.