New Government Proposals Raising Debate

Welcome back after a hopefully relaxing summer! The work to get the autumn semester started is in full force and I have had the pleasure of moving into the University’s beautiful main building in the Vasaparken park. It feels really good.

Several government proposals related to the higher education sector were presented this summer. The one that has attracted the most attention and that has sparked a polarised debate in the media is titled Brett deltagande i högskoleutbildning (wide participation in higher education) and saw the light of day in mid-July. According to the memo, the government wants to revise the part of the national higher education legislation that deals with the responsibility of academic institutions when it comes to widening participation. Instead of just actively widening the recruitment of students to higher education, as Swedish academic institutions are currently doing, the memo suggests a requirement to also facilitate widened completion of higher education.

The proposal has caused a great deal of irritation. For example, last weekend the leader of the Liberal Party and former minister for higher education Jan Björklund wrote in a debate article in major Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that the government’s ‘order’ to higher education institutions, which in effect requires them to ensure that students complete their education at any cost, will lead to reduced quality of the country’s higher education. Alexander Maurits and Tobias Hägerstrand from Lund University drew the same conclusion in a debate article in Svenska Dagbladet in late July. They wrote that it is totally unrealistic to believe that compliance with the proposed legislation will not require additional resources and also argued that the government’s strict control of higher education is harmful. Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson replied that the government’s proposal is not meant to reduce the expectations put on students and that higher education is something that concerns the entire society and not just those who are already in some way connected to it.

Other interesting contributions to the debate include author and journalist Göran Rosenberg’s reflections on national radio last Sunday (God morgon världen).

My opinion is that we must never compromise the quality of education, and that the expected learning requirements listed in the course and programme syllabi must always be met in order for a student to pass. We must of course also ensure that the students receive the support they need, given the current system for allocation of resources.

However, widening participation in and completion of higher education also implies a responsibility for the students to do what it takes to perform in accordance with the learning objectives declared for their courses. You can never get away from this simple fact. I would in this context like to mention the compensatory responsibility of the national school system, i.e. that Swedish schools are required to provide all pupils and students with equal opportunities with respect to education, academic performance and potential for higher education.

It will be very interesting to discuss the new government proposal with colleagues at the University, but also nationally. The proposal is intended to go into force on 1 July 2018.

Another government inquiry was launched this summer. The purpose of it is to suggest measures to support students in cases of illness and promote more effective studies. I welcome such an inquiry, the results of which may make life easier for students with health problems. This proposal should probably also be considered in parallel with the legislative proposal regarding widening participation, as the investigator is explicitly instructed to ‘propose changes in the student finance system aimed to increase the student completion rate in higher education’ and to ‘suggest appropriate levels of the earned income allowance in the national student aid system for all levels of education’. The results of the inquiry will be a topic for future discussion.

Late last week, I was introduced to some very unpleasant lists posted on a website where right-wing extremists congregate to share opinions. The lists contained a large number of names of researchers at our universities and university colleges, journalists, politicians, artists and various participants in the public debate, people who were identified for example as ‘the betrayers and traitors from the power elite’ who should be prosecuted and punished in various ways. Although the website has now been closed down and reported to the police, it may understandably have created a lot of discomfort and fear. I want to stress that this is something that we at the University of Gothenburg take very seriously. Our security manager Jörgen Svensson is in contact with the Swedish Security Service, and his advice to those who are concerned is to contact him or any of the local security coordinators who serve at the different campuses.

That’s all for now. My ambition is to blog at least once a week or whenever something comes up that I would like to talk about.

Eva Wiberg