2023-05-03: The Swedish government recently decided to shorten the term of office for members of university and university college boards to less than half the time. The government also pointed out what competences need to be added to these boards. This has – quite naturally – provoked strong reactions at the country's universities.
The letter signed by the rectors of the higher education institutions, through The Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions and which has been sent to the government shows the concern that the universities feel about increased political control. However, the political will to control the institutions of higher education in various ways is nothing new but has been practiced and developed in different forms by different governments. It is unfortunate and surprising that the government seems to choose to go further in governance rather than the other way around.
Chalmers is a foundation university. We have greater independence and freedom than the state universities. It is therefore not up to me as president of Chalmers to have clearly stated opinions about the nomination process for state universities. Chalmers has therefore not signed the letter either. But the core of the situation that has arisen is that the state universities are administrative authorities under the government. They are just like all other government agencies instruments of government policy. Here, society's legitimate right to influence the operations, through the government, collides with the universities' absolute need to be independent from political, religious and economic influence. Indeed, a difficult balance problem!
Academic excellence requires long-term conditions and independence
In a broader perspective, current events actualise the fundamental mechanism behind what we call academic excellence: that truly ground-breaking research findings and top-quality education require long-term conditions and a very high degree of independence.
At Chalmers, in recent years we have evaluated our position in relation to leading international universities. We have arrived at a decision to significantly raise our level of ambition with the aim of becoming one of Europe's absolute foremost technical universities within a couple of decades. A university that is the combination of academic excellence and a forerunner in innovation and utility. Although we have a lot to be proud of already today, this requires great efforts and frankly we have a long journey ahead of us. At the same time, we assess that Chalmers is likely to be the only Swedish university that actually has the opportunity to significantly improve the scientific results – and the key factor is autonomy. We have greater autonomy and that gives us a special responsibility.
Our freedom makes a difference for a better world
Through our financial and organisational freedom, we can manage our own capital and invest our surplus in creating long-term conditions for education and research with internationally competitive conditions. In this way, we have a chance to assert ourselves in the competition for the world's best researchers and teachers. We can organise ourselves as we see fit to increase the capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship. And when we increase our gravitational pull for academic talent, the result is a whole new level of societal benefit. Attracting creativity, capital and indirectly the opportunity to build wealth – and in the end actually contribute to making the world a better place.
We are already today a university that supplies Sweden and not least the western Swedish industrial cluster with new knowledge, innovation, and engineering expertise. The gains if we succeed in raising the academic level substantially and developing the capacity for entrepreneurship and innovation can be enormous. For Sweden's competitiveness and future as a welfare nation, we are convinced that this is the way forward. We simply cannot afford not to. When we have the opportunity, we also have the responsibility to do so.
Every political decision by current, previous, and future governments, regarding increased short-termism and political control of the universities is hence surprising and counterproductive.
Politics should strive for autonomy for state universities as well
We are convinced that short-term political control seriously affects the long-term social benefit that academia can contribute. More universities should be given the opportunity to choose a path in the way that Chalmers is now doing. We therefore believe that the government should urgently start work to find better forms for the autonomy of the state universities than to have them as administrative authorities – perhaps as foundations, similar to Chalmers, or by finding suitable more independent forms of organisation.
Such an initiative from the government would give more universities, based on their own conditions and strengths, the opportunity to contribute to securing Sweden's future position as a leading knowledge nation.
Stefan Bengtsson, President and CEO, Chalmers University of Technology
Under the headline "President’s perspective" the President and CEO for Chalmers University of Technology, shares his reflections on current topics that concern education, research and utilisation.