Sweden is out of sync with northern transformation

29 April 2022

Regional development discussions are currently dominated by the societal transformation taking place in the north of Sweden. This is a topical issue for Umeå University as we wish to meet needs and contribute to positive change. It sometimes surprises me that it is not more well-known across other parts of the country what the ongoing transformation will require.

In the past weeks, I have been involved in several activities covering the societal transformation of Northern Sweden. Umeå University is expected to supply skilled labour for the growing industries and societies. Contributing with an educated workforce is a natural and crucial part of a university's remit. The difference is that this part of the country is expected to grow by a further 150,000 people in the next ten to fifteen years, which is a population growth of over 20 per cent.

Dieter Müller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor

Photo: Mattias Pettersson

Such a population increase necessitates people to move to Northern Sweden. Many people interpreted the Government's initiative to appoint a coordinator for the industrialisation and societal transformation in the north as proof of understanding that this is a national issue. There is reason to believe, however, that such an understanding has not travelled far – not even among government officials – since a large portion of current public debate hardly takes into account the needs of the north.

The clearest example can be found in migration policy. At the same time as northern industries are seeking labour nationally and internationally, Swedish political parties are competing to toughen up immigration into Sweden. This to the extent that even universities suffer from tougher migration policies. Practically all northern Swedish trades face the same challenges to recruit. Already when the societal transformation is in its early days, job vacancies far outnumber its applicants.

In political debate in the nation's capital, unemployment is highlighted as a key problem for Swedish progress – and often this goes without mention of labour shortages found in the north. A couple of months ago, the Minister for Employment made a note that unemployed workers should consider moving further north, but that message was soon forgotten without having ever been taken seriously.

I recently listened to a discussion between representatives of the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth and regional stakeholders that covered educational activities on the theme of green transition. It turns out that available funding can only be used for industries that are being decommissioned, as the basic assumption is that green transition is deindustrialisation rather than new industrialisation. The Government coordinator Peter Larsson has often, whilst sounding seemingly surprised, noted that societal efforts are only designed to help in a crisis. When society stands before growth, society is at a loss and has no idea of how to simplify such a process. This also applies to permit processes that move at a much slower pace than the ongoing transformation.

Us Northerners seem to be rather alone in realising that the ongoing transformation is outstanding and important, not just for us, but for the entire country. At the same time as regional challenges, albeit serious, concerning immigration, segregation and criminal gangs become national problems, it is also being discussed whether those moving north should be enticed by a grant. Until recently, leading news providers has equalled covering news in north Sweden with international coverage. This further shows that development in the north hides in the shadows of big city debates that show little interest in the northern parts of the country.

I believe many staff members at Umeå University recognise the experience of marginal importance. Important decisions regarding research and education are taken in the capital, sometimes with little influence from researchers from Northern Sweden. In the University Management, we have long worked towards strengthening the presence of Umeå University in national contexts. And now, it is high time to discuss topical research challenges in the north on the national research agenda. Even if it does not align with the rest of Sweden.

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