Full Schedule with Fellow Vice-Chancellors

As I told you in my previous blog post, I spent the days of 17–18 August at the Smådalarö inn in Haninge near Stockholm. More precisely, I attended the annual conference of the Association of Swedish Higher Education (SUHF), which gathers 21 university vice-chancellors from all over Sweden for discussions on various topics. These gatherings are important to me, as they offer an easy way to talk about things with fellow vice-chancellors. Let me mention a few of the issues we discussed.

The governance and management of our universities in relation to the directives we receive from the government is a continuous topic of discussion, and this time we came to discuss the government inquiry on the governance of and resource allocation at Swedish higher education institutions that the University of Gothenburg’s former vice-chancellor was recently appointed to lead. The government’s aim with the inquiry is to get ideas on how a more efficient control system can be designed in order for universities to be able to develop optimally. On 21 September, Pam Fredman and Magnus Petersson from the Vice-Chancellors Office will hold a hearing in Gothenburg with the universities. It will be interesting to follow the work!

Another ongoing inquiry, led by Agneta Bladh, chair of the Swedish Research Council, deals with the issue of increased internationalisation. A first questionnaire has been submitted by the universities, and we are all pondering over how nationally strategic we should be, in order to promote research and education as well as export strategies. We are a small country and have a lot to gain from inter-university collaboration on internationalisation issues.

And one further inquiry is scheduled to be wrapped up next week, the one on the rules regarding research ethics and the border area between clinical research and healthcare. This inquiry is headed by Councillor of Justice Gudmund Toijer and the issue is difficult in several ways: Where is the boundary between healthcare and research and how do we make the system legally secure, primarily for the patients but also for scientists and doctors? What rules should apply when other actors, such as businesses and international academic institutions, are involved and how long should the period of limitation be? Proper handling of these questions will require advanced expertise.

Action plans and policy documents are all very well, but now’s the time to once and for all gender mainstream the university in practice. The Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg is appointed by the government to support Swedish higher education institutions in this work. At the end of the year, this responsibility will be transferred to the new national gender equality agency, which will also be placed in Gothenburg.

A much talked about government proposal that I told you about a week ago, and that I will most likely bring up again, is the one about widened participation in higher education. The proposal involves a revision of the Swedish Higher Education Act; instead of only requiring universities to actively promote and expand their recruiting of students to higher education, as is the case today, the proposal suggests an increased responsibility to ensure that students actually complete their education.

Swedish vice-chancellors most likely agree that widening participation is a more adequate approach than merely widening recruitment. The concept implies that students should get the support they need (please see my blog post from 15 August). A lot is already being done, in terms of both recruitment and for example distance education, to enable people to participate in higher education regardless of where they live. But I think we all agree that we must never compromise on the quality of the education and that each individual student is ultimately responsible for his or her education. In order for us to do even more, and at the same time maintain a high quality of courses and programmes, we will need more resources.

UKÄ, the Swedish Higher Education Authority, is expected to soon make public its assessment of the efforts of the country’s higher education institutions to promote sustainable development. I am confident that our University will do well because one of the many things that have impressed me about the University of Gothenburg is the great awareness of sustainability issues at all levels, Faculties and Departments. This is something all staff can be really proud of.

Last Wednesday, all incoming international students were officially welcomed to the University of Gothenburg. About 900 students came to cinema Draken at Järntorget, which was far more than expected and filled the premises to capacity. Welcome Services were in charge of the event, which gave the attending students valuable information about our University, Gothenburg and Sweden. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Mette Sandoff, who opened the event with a welcome speech, said to me afterward:

‘It was great fun to see Draken filled to the brim with students who have chosen to come to GU to study – it says something about the quality of the education we provide. With such a well-planned and engaging welcome programme, I entered the stage and welcomed the students to the University with great pride!’

Eva Wiberg

Marita Hilliges New Secretary General of the Association of Swedish Higher Education (SUHF)

Together with around 20 heads of Sweden’s higher education institutions, I’m currently visiting Smådalarö and attending SUHF’s annual conference for vice-chancellors. The conference schedule is intense and I will tell you more next week about the interesting discussions we have had. However, one thing I’d like to share today is the happy and important news that yesterday 17 August, SUHF appointed Marita Hilliges as new secretary general.

Marita Hilliges is professor of neuroscience and has served as vice-chancellor of Dalarna University since 2010. Her previous appointments include a position as pro-vice-chancellor at Halmstad University. Marita Hilliges has already been involved in the work of SUHF for several years; she served as vice chair 2011–2014 and has also headed several of the Association’s working groups.

Marita will commence her new post on 1 October and succeeds Anders Söderholm, who has been appointed new director-general of the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ).

Congratulations, Marita!

Eva Wiberg

A selfie with New Secretary General of the Association of Swedish Higher Education, Marita Hilliges

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