Opinion from the President: The whole of society needs to be engaged in the university governance reform process

The need to modernise the governance of and allocation of resources to universities is significant. More flexibility is needed and differences must be taken into account.

Higher education is the single largest area of the public sector. It has an annual turnover of SEK 67 billion, 75,000 employees and 400,000 students. State universities are also public authorities.

But the way in which Swedish universities are governed differs in many ways from other public sector agencies. By tradition universities have had a large measure of freedom to design their education programmes and research activities. There are several reasons for this. The higher education sector is an autonomous power that reflects society. Access to education is a democratic right and the universities set long-term goals.

Higher education has been expanded significantly over the past 25 years. Today there are significant differences between the 42 state universities in terms of their missions and goals. A simple comparison between Karolinska Institutet (KI) with Halmstad University reveals this. One is a research-focused elite institution which is among the best in the world and the other is a university focusing very successfully on collaboration with the community and private sector in its region. Both are successful and important. But entirely different.

Swedish universities today are not only competing with each other to attract the best student students and researchers, growing global competition is putting new kinds of pressure on them and what they are able to do. The Swedish Higher Education Act from 1996 contains a third mission: external engagement.

The need to modernise governance and the way in which resources are allocated to universities is significant. More flexibility is needed and differences must be taken into account. Current systems date back to 1993 and are based on the principle of two sets of subsidies: one for undergraduate education and one for research. The universities have a lot of influence over how the funds are used. Education funding is based on number of students and performance. Research money can be saved from year to year.

This spring Helene Hellmark Knutsson, Minister for Higher Education and Research, announced the launch of two important commissions. Pam Fredman, former President of the University of Gothenburg, is going to conduct a comprehensive review of governance and resource allocation, and will propose a new governance system. The commission will submit its report in December 2018. Agneta Bladh, Chair of the Swedish Research Council, will develop a proposal for new goals and a new strategy for internationalisation of universities and how students can gain an international perspective in their education. The final report will be published in October 2018.

I welcome both of these commissions. They are long overdue and should serve as the starting shot for a broad debate. But it is important that these issues are not just treated as internal matters within the academic sphere. Society at large and the business community need to review their needs, express their opinions and get involved in the debate now that the system is finally being reformed.

Ultimately, this is about securing society’s long-term talent needs and strengthening Sweden’s position as a leading knowledge nation. The world is changing rapidly. If we stand still we will be left behind. There are already 30,000 Swedes studying abroad (2014 academic year) and the number is rising.