Teacher education engages – to what price?

25 September 2023

Teacher education is frequently discussed in several contexts and many of us feel responsible for ensuring that the Swedish teacher education maintains a high quality. This is valuable and indicates that the teacher education is important and arouses engagement. Prior to political elections, teacher education and schooling tend to be a recurring theme, and politicians and the public often have a firm position on what characterises "high quality" or what should be included in teacher education. This is well-intentioned, but not entirely unproblematic.

The reform enthusiasm found in present society contributes to a micro-management that hugely contrasts the principle of academic freedom. This applies in particular to teacher education. All education must be grounded in scientific principles and those who are best suited to make scientific judgements regarding course content or choice of theories are the professionals.

Cathrine Norberg, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Umeå University.

Photo: Mattias Pettersson

Debate about teacher educations often mentions how they are not up to standard, that no one wants to be a teacher, or that young people are clever enough to steer clear of teaching as a profession. This has consequences, of course, and it affects people. It has an effect on how attractive these educations are, and the general population's view on the profession and its practitioners. What is seldom raised, however, is that teacher educations collectively are the biggest vocational education and training programmes in Sweden. The conditions teacher educations have to deliver high-quality education are rarely discussed. All educations can obviously improve and we cannot ignore the fact that there is a teacher shortage in Sweden. The number of students choosing to start and complete a teacher education is dwindling, which is something we also need to take into account.

I have been following the application statistics for teacher educations via Lärarutbildningskonventet ('the Swedish teacher education convention') for a long time now. At the last meeting in September, it became obvious that most higher education institutions experience dwindling numbers of applicants to their teacher educations, to varying extents. The most critical reduction in numbers is those to pre-school teacher programmes and subject teacher programmes. What appears as a clear trend is also that the long supplementary teacher education (KPU90*), seems to be driven out of competition by two shorter variants (KPU60/KPU75). The long KPU corresponds to a year and a half of studies and can be taken by people who have the subject knowledge in at least one school subject, but lack teacher qualifications. The shorter variants provide the same teacher qualifications as the regular KPU, but the duration of studies is considerably shorter. Competition between different teacher education programmes was a factor that many feared when the shorter variants were introduced. At that point, people wondered what parts of the long KPU were going to be removed without adverse effects on quality. It is obviously not entirely uncomplicated to navigate the landscape of teacher educations, neither for students nor for education coordinators.

Teacher education and schools were, not entirely unexpectedly, mentioned in the Tidöavtalet political agreement, in which it states that teacher educations must be developed to improve the status of the educations. The Swedish Minister of Education was quick to announce that an investigation was on its way, and that a huge reform was to be expected. Shortly before the summer holidays this year, the kommittédirektivet* was published. The investigation is hugely about proposing how admission requirements for teacher and pre-school teacher educations could be made stricter; how measures to strengthen the subject teacher education could be introduced; and how focus on subject knowledge, cognition science and practical methodology could be enhanced in educations. In the directive, it is also suggested that the investigator will review how the number of qualitative targets could be reduced.

Peter Honeth will lead the investigation, which is to be presented in November 2024. He used to be secretary of state in 2011, when the present-day teacher educations were launched. Given the extent of the task ahead, this is an intense job with a short deadline. Even if the investigation has only just started, many questions regarding the implications of various wordings in the directive have been addressed. What does "increased cognitive science" mean and how should "increased subject qualifications" be interpreted? Should any elements of the educations be removed to make room for such qualifications? A common topic of debate when it comes to teacher education is stoffträngsel ('subject congestion'). A lot of information needs to be crammed in, but it is hard to define what could be taken out. Tidöavtalet mentions that the subject teacher education may need to be concentrated to a reduced number of higher education institutions, to "those with the highest ranking". This wording has been the cause for concern and queries. The meaning seems to have been toned down, though. If my interpretation is accurate, it is primarily a matter of increasing focus on collaboration across universities, even if the possibility to concentrate some subjects to a fewer number of higher education institutions will be investigated. A reduction in the number of qualitative targets would probably be seen as positive by the sector. No other educations are so micro-managed and have as many qualitative targets as the teacher educations.

Several wordings in the directive need to be clarified, regardless of our enthusiasm or aversion for yet another reform. I believe it is important that we are proactive, both within the university as well as together with other universities, and that we start collaborating over educations with the existing challenges in mind, and that we problematise possible consequences of the ongoing review. One example of a cross-sector collaboration that was commenced before the investigation started was to develop proposals for how to reduce the number of qualitative targets. I will follow how this investigation is going together with many colleagues at Umeå University, and I will also be in contact with the investigator himself and other higher education institutions. This is something we need to help each other with. Teacher educations are important to our entire university, and they form the basis for all other education.

* KPU stands for 'supplementary teacher education'.
* The Swedish Government can appoint a state investigation into an issue. The points of departure for such an investigation is stipulated in a kommittédirektiv.

Login to be able to read and write comments.