The university ​– where is it heading?

One year ago, Olle Häggström wrote the book Here Be Dragons, on technology development, existential risks and the future of humanity. What does he think about the future of the university, then?

Campus Johanneberg​– For me, the university is intellectual encounters between people. And I hope that the university for at least a few more decades is a physical meeting place, the quality is not the same when meeting via Skype. But the digitalization does not worry me as much as another, ongoing development of the university. We hear the word researcher hotel and it is not hard to see that things are going in that direction, it depends on the research grants if you get a job or not, and then the departments will soon no longer have a coherent idea anymore or any direction of their own.

We are talking less and less about the research issues, and more and more about funding. When asking ”How is it going?” the answer will more likely be ”Well, I am applying for this grant” instead of ”I have found an interesting connection to another problem”. It has become an unspoken premise that success is measured in funding, not in research results. And if you comment on this in a conversation, everybody agrees that it is the research itself that matters – but soon the discussion is back to funding again.

This is part of a longer tendency in the academia. In the UK, it has become really destructive with extremely demanding evaluations aimed at a narrow utilization perspective. We are moving in the same direction in Sweden but it has not yet become quite as bad. But in the government’s latest research bill the basic research is completely forgotten. Focus on bibliometrics has become very strong, especially the research councils drive researchers to publish all the time, which breeds a quantity thinking that is not good for the research.

Instead, I would like to see the nurturing of an environment that stimulates slow reflection and academic height. Job security and undisturbed time for reflection are needed to be able to work with difficult, long-term problems. In politics and in public debate it is unfortunately not the strongest arguments that win but the catchiest one-liners, like innovation and economic growth in the short term. This is not because we have become dumber, but we are under more pressure. ”Gothenburg Centre for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology” and similar centres at other universities were created to uphold basic research, and it is a good initiative, but far too small!

It is not that I think that ”everything was better before”, the universities have been both elitist and hierarchical, and it is very positive that they opened up so that it is not the private wealth that determines whether you can continue studying. We also have great advantage of the technological development that computerization means, with an easy information gathering and closer contact with researchers in other continents. Mathematics is one of the areas where researchers often have their collaboration partners far away. And we can certainly benefit from better video conference techniques, although as I said I do not think it can replace the personal meeting.

Olle HäggströmSomething that I really value in my role as a professor is that I have a position that allows me to express myself without personal risk, even in controversial issues. Which I occasionally do. Who will speak up if not we at the university do it? The risk is that we will have a quieter culture, as people do not want to risk their grants. I think we need to pull ourselves together, stand with our backs straight, and tell the politicians that we are a university! I do not know if they will listen… but we still have to try. If enough of us protest maybe we can make a difference, the future is not inscribed in stone.

Text and photos: Setta Aspström

Published: Tue 07 Feb 2017.