Quality of Swedish universities ‘too low’

Sweden’s Education Minister has some harsh words for the country’s universities

Echoing the views of the Ugandan President on his country’s higher education system, Sweden’s Education Minister, Jan Björklund, has been speaking out:

“The quality of the knowledge that Swedish students have when they leave university is not enough to prepare them for adult life,” Björklund told Sverige Radio (SR), adding that too often, the quality of Swedish universities is often “too low”.

“We need a much tougher and more stringent government inspection of Sweden’s higher education.”

The piece in The Local goes on to suggest that the government intends to restructure the regulatory machinery in Sweden “to get rid of all courses that are not up to scratch”

Are Sweden's universities flagging?

The plan involves merging three agencies into two:

The three current authorities are the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskoleverket), the Swedish Agency for Higher Education Services (Verket för högskoleservice – VHS) and the International Programme Office for Education and Training (Internationella programkontoret för utbildningsområdet – IPK). Following the reshuffle, the responsibilities of the three will be divided over two agencies, with the one being the only agency responsible for quality control of the higher education system.

The Minister’s view is that the current Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, is “plagued by being required to both give development advice and review courses at the same time.” There is an argument for separating inspection from improvement in quality assurance but I’m not sure it will really make the kind of difference hoped for here. The benefit of development advice is unlikely to be greatly enhanced or make a real impact because of these changes. And it could be argued that Sweden already has some rather good universities with at least two universities normally in the QS Top 100; what might help is perhaps reducing the government interference in their academic activities.

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UK: Swedish Registrars Seminar 2011

2011 UK: Swedish Registrars Seminar

This event, held in September at the University of Cardiff, was the latest in long series of biennial seminars, alternating venues between the UK and Sweden and I was privileged to be invited to attend as one of the dozen or so UK delegates. The seminars started, I think, about 30 years ago at the instigation of the Swedish government (which also provided some funding) with the aim of enabling Swedish Registrars to learn about developments in the UK from their counterparts here. Whilst the origins imply one way traffic in terms of learning and advancement, it is very much a mutually beneficial dialogue these days and hugely beneficial as a consequence.

It was a hugely enjoyable and deeply fascinating event and it was great to meet colleagues from Sweden in this kind of format which enabled extensive discussion to take place, and some socialising too. Super organisation from Louise and Lucy at Cardiff.

Our Swedish counterparts seem look at our systems (plural given the different UK nations present) with real interest and not a little nervousness. And who can blame them. The changes taking place in Swedish HE, whilst not as dramatic as those in the UK, are interesting nevertheless. The most significant reforms, following their last change in government, include:

  • Greater freedom for universities and significant deregulation
  • Huge investment in research, with the  allocation of resource based on performance
  • A new quality assurance regime
  • Major changes to teacher education
  • The introduction of higher fees for non-EU students

Bizarrely (it seemed to us) the universities rejected the independence on offer to them, preferring to stay under the government’s wing. However, given the financial benefits which have clearly accrued, particularly in relation to research support, and the fact that there is a lot of new regulation being imposed anyway, this is perhaps not such a strange decision.

International student recruitment in Sweden has dropped dramatically (by over 85% it was suggested) but given the current level of funding and the very small contribution offered by international fees, the universities are quite relaxed about this and expect things to improve in future.

One extraordinary, to us, fact about Swedish HE was the position in relation to capital funding. Essentially, for most institutions, there isn’t any. They don’t own buildings but lease them from an agency which largely builds to the requirements of the university.

An awful lot emerged that we had in common, from HR issues to Centre v School tensions and resource allocation to student recruitment. Many other points of contrast too – most notable for me was that the Swedes had lived happily with freedom of information legislation for as long as they could remember and really didn’t understand our concerns.The other perhaps suprising conclusion from the British delegation was that the systems in the different nations of the UK are diverging more than we may have thought.

But such a huge benefit in sharing experiences in this way in such a congenial atmosphere. And again I was extremely grateful to have been invited.