Combine government funding for research and education

Today’s governance of Swedish higher education institutions is short-sighted, poorly coordinated and much too general and competitive. The separation of direct government funding between education and research has created unnatural boundaries and promoted a culture within academia that underestimates education in relation to research.

Pam Fredman, former vice-chancellor at the University of Gothenburg, in charge of the Governance and Resource Inquiry, Strut. Photo: Johan Wingborg

Pam Fredman and her investigative team did not hold back in their impact assessment of today’s system, presented first in the new proposal generated by the Inquiry on Governance to Promote Strong and Responsible Higher Education Institutions, also known as the Governance and Resource Inquiry (or in Swedish, Strut).

So far, it is a prototype proposal – a draft report that requires consideration and a decision by the next government’s Ministry of Education and Research, around the turn of the year 2019/20.

“This is an unusual procedure, and the inquiry has been allowed considerably more time than usual, almost one and a half years”, says Tim Ekberg, head of the Planning office at LU.

The reason is said to be the attempt at gaining political support for the proposal – and to avoid turning these issues into party politics – by establishing consensus and long-term goals.

The division between research and education funding dates back to the higher education reform in 1977. The resource allocation system for education was introduced in connection with the so-called “Freedom reform” in 1993, and the governance of research has been coordinated in the same way since the 1980s. The most recent major change occurred in 2008 when the direct government funding for research was no longer divided into the various disciplines, and a redistribution mechanism was introduced based on research production and acquired external research funding.

Merging the two capital pools for research and education is perhaps the most radical proposal of the inquiry. The justification for the proposal is that the current division counteracts the principle that higher education and research belong together – a strong principle both in Sweden and abroad. However, the division between education and research is in fact stronger in Sweden than in many other countries, including our neighbours. In addition to the division, the investigators point to the large proportion of external research funding which lacks a connection to education. Within major study areas, such as nursing and teacher training, the amount of external research funding is small and thus also the link to research.

According to the investigators, the “straight piecework system” – in which the allocation of funding to first- and second-cycle education is entirely based on student performance – also creates problems, as it disproportionally benefits popular study programmes that guarantee results. The system promotes having a relatively similar range of study programmes everywhere, and is a disadvantage to programmes with a small student base as these are found not to be financially justifiable, even if they fill a large knowledge gap on the labour market. In order to reduce the emphasis on performance, the investigators suggest that the calculation of direct government funding for education should comprise one fixed and one variable component based on the number of students. Within the scope of the fixed component, higher education institutions should be given the opportunity to develop their teaching for lifelong learning and skills provision within areas of significance to society that may require smaller student groups and validation.

The inquiry also strives to promote profiling and external engagement, by taking into account the special traits of each higher education institution and helping them establish their own image, as well as promote collaboration and the division of labour between institutions to ensure that the resources in the system are used efficiently.

The investigators want to see an efficient university landscape and find that today’s governance is too general as all higher education institutions are assessed against the same criteria, and because the allocation of educational funding is entirely based on the competition for students.

The inquiry proposes that the current research bill be replaced by a joint bill for higher education and research, preferably every four years, in order to strengthen education and to situate the higher education sector’s role in an international and national context. The processes underlying the research bill should remain, but be adapted so that they also work for a cohesive bill based on analyses of long-term needs and development trends. The investigators argue that if the government was to formulate its goals in a bill in which education, research and external engagement form a whole, it would also facilitate the creation of cohesive knowledge environments.

Agreements between the government and individual higher education institutions would result in a more long-term, coherent and institution-specific form of governance, according to the investigators who propose that these agreements be reached every four years. This procedure is common in other countries, and may involve, for example, assignments to provide training in certain societally important areas or to achieve concrete gender equality and sustainable development goals. The intention with the agreements should be to clarify the link between political objectives and the higher education institutions’ activities, which continue to be conducted within the scope of general governance based on the Higher Education Act and the Higher Education Ordinance.

The new governance system would not be more expensive than the current one. However, more funding dedicated specifically to investments in and operation of research infrastructure is needed. Furthermore, the existing coordination councils between the government (RFVI) and the higher education institutions (URFI) must continue to evolve, and uncertainties regarding the research infrastructure expenditures should be clarified.

Maria Lindh