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New reports on threats to academic freedom and university governance

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The Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF) has produced three reports that highlight key issues it regards as threats to the activities of higher education institutions. A fourth report on governance in higher education will be published after the summer. The other reports concern academic freedom, increased bureaucratisation and the reliance of research on external funding.

The reports are written by different experts linked to SUHF’s Expert Group for Analysis and highlight key challenges for our higher education institutions. The various reports are connected in many ways and all have the same foreword, which emphasises the serious situation: “The freedom to define and spread knowledge in itself is the foundation of all higher education institutions and is also a key prerequisite for democracy. Academic freedom is under pressure and political control is increasing globally and in Sweden.”

The four reports are:

  • Academic Freedom, Tim Ekberg, January 2024
  • Increased Control and Increased Bureaucratisation, Ahlbäck, Öberg & Boberg, March 2024
  • Increased Reliance on External Funding, Bjare & Fredman, April 2024
  • Governance of Education with a Particular Focus on Professional Development and Lifelong Learning, Amnéus & Fredman, August 2024

The reports are intended to act as a point of departure and basis for discussion for change management and the foreword ends with the statement: “It is high time for the Government to act and strengthen academic freedom. The right of higher education institutions to self-determination needs to have clearer and stronger constitutional protection.”

Tim Ekberg, former head of planning at Lund University, has written the report on Academic Freedom. He comments that what surprised him during the work was that while the situation is quite similar internationally, Sweden stands out for its low level of protection against political control. In Sweden, higher education institutions are organised as administrative authorities and are part of the state, with a duty of obedience. This gives the Government the possibility to control academia. 

“The weak legal protection for academic freedom has just been allowed to continue, not least because we have been a nation without wars and conflicts in recent times,” says Tim Ekberg.

In most other European countries higher education institutions often have a more autonomous status that is constitutionally protected. This means that it is not as easy for political control to be exerted through meddling with ongoing education and research. As an example, Tim Ekberg writes about when the Romanian and Polish governments wanted to introduce a ban on gender theories. It became a legal case and the higher education institutions won, as the constitution in these countries protected their independence.

Tim Ekberg is concerned that academic freedom is regarded as self-evident and widely  taken for granted and he considers we must actively fight for it. Not least, academic freedom is an important condition for an open and democratic society.

On the matter of what he sees as current examples of threats in Sweden, Tim Ekberg points to the newly decided shortening of the term of office for university board members. Another example is that the Tidö Agreement outlines what the programme in social work is to contain. Political control has increased, particularly in research. The Government has to a greater extent pointed out the areas to which the research councils are to allocate money.

Tim Ekberg hopes that the Government sets up an inquiry with the task of increasing and securing the freedom of higher education institutions. 

“The hope is that higher education institutions will become more autonomous and are regarded as organisations worthy of special protection that the Government holds at arms’ length,” says Tim Ekberg.

In the forthcoming report, Tim Ekberg will look at the situation in the other Nordic countries and what we can learn from them.

Download the reports (in Swedish):