Political Scientist Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg who believes that many researchers have become afraid to speak their minds as they are dependent on employment opportunities and research funding.

Dare to peak your mind in academia?

Svenska 2015-01-27

All signs indicate that it has become much less acceptable to criticise your own organisation. This is what political scientist Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg says, who argues that this is a result of the autonomy reform.

The governments autonomy reform came into power in January 2011. It was meant to give state universities and other higher education institutions more freedom, with one of its goals being to promote innovation in research.  The reform included the extensive deregulation of the internal organisation.

However, the legal basis for collegial decision-making was abolished when rules regarding the faculty boards were removed from the Higher Education Act and from the Higher Education Ordinance.

“Decisions which really concerned the quality of education and research, for instance syllabus programmes and decisions regarding public defences of doctoral theses, have always been made through collegial decision-making. Now this is being watered down”, says Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg, who is an Associate Professor of political science and Vice Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Uppsala University.

Collegial decision-making is being dismantled

Two essays from her department, looking at the effect of the autonomy regime on a total of ten institutions of higher education, conclude that collegial decision-making is being challenged, and in many cases dismantled at several universities. This is most apparent at the smaller, newer higher education institutions where the academic traditions are not as established.

“The problem is that the importance of expert knowledge is often overlooked in top-down management”, says Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg. An administrative line manager cannot possibly have the academic expertise regarding all subjects taught at the University, in order to make decisions about new course syllabi, rules regarding public defences of doctoral theses or to appoint teachers and researchers.

She argues that the autonomy reform is not primarily meant for researchers, rather for management.

“This means that many Vice-Chancellors have gained more power, which makes it harder for researchers and teachers to do their job. There are many people out there who are fed up…”

Management structure taken from the business world

She claims that the root of the evil is the new management structure which has been taken from the business world, referred to as new public management, which has increased along with the increase of autonomy in the academic world.

“Building a brand and creating a successful image of the organisation outward, has become increasingly important. The management sees internal disagreements as problems that have to be hidden, but as a political scientists, I think it is important that these problems are made public, as we are publicly funded.

And now that there is a new type of system, with top-down management, it is easier for staff to experience conflicts of loyalty.

“Public employees have become more worried overall about publicly criticising their own organisations, and this development has also affected our higher education institutions. This is especially unfortunate, bearing in mind academic freedom. From my contact with researchers, I perceive that many of them have become afraid of speaking their minds as they are dependent on employment opportunities and research funding”.

Widespread discontent amongst academics

She is backed by Eric Olsson, professor of theoretical philosophy at Lund University and one of the founders of Academic Rights Watch:

“For many people,  the autonomy reform was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now there is widespread discontent amongst academics regarding how universities should be run – hardly been beneficial for the debate climate”, he says.

Universities where collegial decision-making still has influence, for example at Uppsala University and also at Lund and Stockholm Universities, there is less fear of entering public debate.

“However, at smaller universities, there are more and more reports about employees being reprimanded for criticising their own organisation. They are afraid of speaking their minds. This is strongly related to top-down management”, says Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg.

A good litmus test is to read the institutions’ communication policies. Often, there are very clear instruction which state that employees must confirm internally before speaking to the media.

“This goes against freedom of information applying to all public employees. It does not only go against our fundamental laws, but it also goes against the very idea of academia, and research and educational freedom. Even UNESCO emphasises the right to express yourself critically, and this includes not only social criticism, but also criticism of organisation that you work in. The university management do not have the mandate to keep people quite in this way. Then, they do not understand our fundamental laws”.

Wants to protect the academic values

Another sign of the gradual change from collegial decision-making to top-down management, is that there has been an increase in the amount of organisations that want to protect academic values, both in Sweden and internationally. Sweden has the Academics Rights Watch and in the United Kingdom has the Council for the Defence of British Universities, DDBU.

Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg is very clear when expressing her opinion and she is often asked by other researchers why people within her department (political science at Uppsala) dare to be so outspoken.

“We do not need to be scared: We are using our rights, because we know we are entitled to. And we are protected by our colleagues even when we disagree with one and other. But, if we were to start behaving badly, we would get a slap on the wrist from the research world  – that is how it works”.

Text: Eva Barkeman