Discussing the future of research and education

25 January 2023

Last week, I spent several packed days with the Association of Swedish Higher Education (SUHF) and with other platforms, in which I, through my different roles, get to take part in discussions on issues that affect all higher education institutions in Sweden. SUHF not only held its first Board meeting chaired by yours truly, but also co-arranged its annual meeting for Vice-Chancellors from across the country, together with the Swedish Higher Education Authority. The week ended with the annual meeting with research funding bodies.

During the yearly so-called "Steningevik meeting", Vice-Chancellors of Swedish higher education institutions met the Minister for Higher Education and the State Secretary for Higher Education. This year marked the first time the new Minister, Mats Persson, and State Secretary Maria Nilsson took part. In his opening speech, the Minister introduced himself and presented the Government's views on where higher education and research in Sweden is headed. He listed three key words he will be prioritising during his term of office: excellency, internationalisation and innovation.

Hans Adolfsson, Vice-Chancellor, Umeå University

Photo: Mattias Pettersson

As for excellency, Mats Persson decribed how Sweden currently lags behind countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland in terms of research. We need to do better with regards to research output and impact. Unfortunately, however, many companies in Sweden have decided to move their R&D operations abroad in recent years. We need to work on attracting foreign talent, Minister Mats Persson stressed. To contribute to that goal, the Government will be reviewing legislation regulating highly-educated migrants' ability to obtain a residence permit. This news was welcomed by many of the universities in attendance, as Sweden's current migration laws hinder us from recruiting and employing visiting research fellows. Regarding innovation, the Minister brought up a paradox: despite heavy investments, Sweden's outcome remains modest. The solution, Mats Persson suggested, would be to adopt a different approach: being bolder and more determined.

After his presentation, the Minister fielded questions from the 35 Vice-Chancellors in the room. Some suggested allocating more or less resources to different profile areas. The Minister responded that while he felt the proposal had merit, he struggled to see how it could be implemented in practice. Others brought up the imbalance between allocation of government funding and external funding when it comes to research, and the reduction of funding per full-time equivalent in education. While he said he was aware of the issue, the Minister did not mention any plans by the Government to address it. On the whole, the event gave me the impression that both the new Minister and the State Secretary are still very new to their jobs. The Government will need to familiarise itself with quite a few issues before we get to find out what course it will be taking in terms of research and education.

At the end of the week, SUHF and the public research funding bodies Formas, Forte, Vinnova and the Swedish Research Council held their annual dialogue seminar, to discuss hot topics in the field of research. The first presentation was held by Fofin, a governmental public investigation that will be reviewing how Sweden structures its public research funding. The roughly 130 attendants got to record messages in which they could say which issues mattered most to them and what structure they would prefer. After lunch, discussions centred on the new research bill the Government is expected to present next year. Many important areas were mentioned, all of which Sweden will need to prioritise if it is to retain its position as a leading research nation: open science, increased government funding, research infrastructure, institutional autonomy and less meddling by politicians. The seminar ended with a session on the assessment of qualifications – very topical, given the work currently being done by the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA), which more than 400 organisations and universities, including our own, have joined. The conclusion of the session was that it is a good thing Swedish higher education institutions and funding bodies have decided to participate in CoARA: it means we can help steer its decisions and prevent it from becoming "just another step" in the EU's policy development process.

These recent days are an excellent example of what is written in Umeå University' vision: "We have good networks and are influential in external organs where strategic topics are discussed and where decisions are made." A goal that definitely applies to research policy. We need to be part of these forums and make our voice heard.

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