Last week, I attended a conference in Siena on the topic of how academia and diplomacy can work together in connection with international crises. The conference was arranged by the European Association of International Studies (AESI) and gave a clear message to students, scholars and the public of how universities, with their research, education and engaged students, can help contribute to peace, human rights, gender equality and sustainability in a rapidly changing world.
AESI organises seminars and conferences to facilitate discussions between the university world and international diplomacy. The former is considered to represent objectivity and unbiased research while the role of the latter is to stimulate dialogue and agreements between states and governments.
The issues discussed at the conference include how the EU despite all the problems can and must remain a peace-promoting actor, no matter what happens. The situation on the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East was also discussed. We talked about how universities can help diplomats reach an impact in politically difficult areas.
In my speech, I mentioned some of our University’s outstanding contributions of relevance within the framework of the conference, such as the V-Dem Institute, the QoG Institute and the Centre for Collective Action Research (CeCar).
I’m convinced that universities have a unique possibility to reach out and find feasible paths where diplomacy may not always be successful. It may be easier for us to achieve an impact through collaboration in research and education, which is necessary in order to be able to implement diplomatic solutions. Our obvious role is to contribute knowledge and correct information. But academia can serve as a door opener and improve the potential of diplomacy.
This year’s Almedalen Week and the West Swedish Arena, co-hosted by the University of Gothenburg, have now started. This time, we have focused our seminars around the role of universities in society. I was unfortunately not able to make it to the University’s first seminar – Tvärvetenskap är framtiden, men hänger universiteten med? (‘Interdisciplinarity is the future, but are the universities keeping up?). It was organised by Mistra Urban Futures and, luckily for me, it was filmed and is available online. The discussion was based on the sustainability goals in Agenda 2030 and on the Swedish Higher Education Authority’s evaluation from 2017 of how well Swedish higher education institutions provide education about sustainable development, which found that only one quarter of the evaluated universities covered this area well enough. Although our University was one of those that received a passing grade, I do realise that more can be done. During the seminar, Louise Jansson, coordinator of student participation in the University’s sustainability work, pointed out that Swedish universities could become more innovative and create structures for tighter links between education and practice. I agree completely with her point that students should not merely be seen as consumers of education but also as important actors in society and producers of knowledge.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Olof Palme’s first Alemdalen address, given from the back of a lorry. 2018 is an election year in Sweden, which will most likely add some heat to the week in Visby. At least when it comes to the debates and speeches that will be held. Other than that, the weather has been a bit chilly, despite the abundant sunshine.
I have several expectations of this year’s Almedalen Week. I’m looking forward to hearing what other people have to say about the role of universities in society. I have never felt a greater need than now to actively participate in the public debate, where our research can contribute to new perspectives and solutions. And doing so is fully in line with one of our most fundamental tasks, namely to reach out to and collaborate with other actors for the benefit of society. The Almedalen Week is a great arena for reaching out with research communication.
I also expect many informal discussions and exciting meetings. Despite a rather intense seminar programme, I consider the week in Almedalen a refreshing break from the everyday work at home and an opportunity to get a healthy injection of thoughts and ideas in preparation for the autumn semester. For me, the week will be a nice transition from the intense daily routines and tight schedule at the University to my more relaxed summer calendar. What I mean is that the Almedalen Week offers an opportunity for reflection, unrestricted thinking and a few days of collecting various perspectives and ideas that will then be left to marinate during my days off later in the summer. Later on, after the summer, my thoughts from Almedalen will be used as fertiliser in my work with plans, directives and projects.
I plan to attend several of the University’s seminars. And I particularly look forward to the Swedish Research Council’s seminar Hur kan vi främja vetenskapens bidrag till samhällets utveckling? (‘How can we promote the contribution of science to the development of society?’) and the Association of Swedish Higher Education’s ditto titled Var går gränsen för vad vi bör forska om? (‘What are the limits of what we should do research on?’). In addition, we will of course get to hear more about higher education policy and the Swedish government’s inquiry on the governance of and resource allocation to Swedish higher education within the framework of several seminars.
Today was the Moderates’ day in Almedalen and the West Swedish Arena opened its doors.
‘I see two reasons to be optimistic about the future of universities. One is the supply of people, and in contrast to natural resources, there is a great wealth of people everywhere. The other is that there is a tremendous abundance of ignorance and lack of knowledge in the world. Thus, universities have a seemingly limitless supply to draw from.’
Somewhat paraphrased, this is how Gudmund Hernes, outstanding Norwegian social scientist, responded to the question of the future of universities – endangered or more important than ever?See the webcast. A very inspiring seminar indeed, where Hernes said that we have good reason to be optimistic.
The Almedalen Week is like a long parade of issues and questions that get discussed from a wide range of perspectives. Here are some of them that I have chosen to spend the last few days focusing on:
Does the internationalisation of universities make Sweden stronger as a knowledge nation?
Consequences of the Swedish government’s inquiry on the governance of and resource allocation to higher education – what do the students believe?
Open science – is it needed?
The educational role of universities?
Half doctor, half engineer – are hybrid programmes the solution to new demands in healthcare?
How far should we take our research? How do we know if we have gone too far?
During the well-attended seminar titled Hur kan vi främja vetenskapens bidrag till samhällets utveckling? (‘How can we promote contributions of science to the development of society?’), Swedish Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson brought attention to an important and sad paradox. Despite the widespread awareness of how important respectful interaction between academia, research and policymaking is, there is currently a tendency for some politicians to try to gain support by pushing issues supported by relatively big portions of the public but not by research, facts and experts. The idea is to appear as a ‘man of the people’ who is standing up against the establishment. This is an important phenomenon to point out, but I hope and believe that a vast majority of our politicians do not succumb to this temptation. The minister further stressed the importance of helping to raise the general level of knowledge and understanding in society – a task where universities have an important role to play. Today, schools are teaching children and teenagers how to evaluate the validity of sources of information, but at the same time we have large groups of adults who fall into mental bubbles where opinions become ‘truths’ regardless of what research and science have to say about an issue.
Another thing I appreciate during the Almedalen Week is the chitchat around the breakfast table, as it enables me to listen to and ventilate thoughts about seminars and panel debates that I and my colleagues have attended. For example, Pro-Vice–Chancellor Mattias Goksör attended a seminar titled Hur mår svensk demokrati och vem styr valrörelsen? (‘Democracy in Sweden – how is it doing and who is in charge of the election campaign?’). The SOM Institute shared some good news on the topic. Although we may sometimes feel that things are starting to go really bad, at least people’s trust in various institutions remains strong and consistent over time.