The education quality at Swedish higher education institutions has been a hot topic of discussion for several years, and in January, Dick Harrison, a history professor at Lund University, threw more fuel on the fire.
In an opinion piece in Svenska Dagbladet, he called Sweden’s higher education a failure. He blamed it on the student unions having gained increased power and the institutions receiving financial compensation in relation to the number of graduates. This leads to a drop in quality, argued Harrison.
He received both opposition and support for his views. However, the view that the situation has become tougher for the university teachers is something that is confirmed by the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers, SULF.
Carl Falck, an in-house lawyer at SULF, is firm in his opinion that the demands on teachers have increased in several ways. For example, the administrative workload is increasing and many teachers are responsible for more students and more inexperienced students than before.
More students and new attitudes
“Over the years, the state’s financial contribution per student has dropped. One way for the universities to address this was to take in more students. But this means that teachers have less time for each student. At the same time, more people than before are attending university, and people with less study experience often need more help and support,” says Carl Falck.
He also has the impression that there are more incidents where individual students put pressure on teachers.
“In the past, when you got a bad grade you either accepted it or you went to the examiner and asked about the matter. Now it can happen that parents of students call and yell at the teacher because their child has received poor grades. There has been a change in attitude. More people seem to believe that the students should be able to cope with their studies very easily,” says Carl Falck.
According to the Higher Education Act, the students should be represented when educational goals and curricula are established. In this way they can influence the course structure and requirements. But on an individual level, it is the student’s own responsibility to ensure that they can handle their studies. In a formal sense, the teacher has no obligation to ensure that every student copes with the demands.
The unions are also critical of lowered demands
In the debate, the student unions have stated that they are looking for improved education, not undemanding courses. According to Caroline Sundberg, Chairperson of the Swedish National Union of Students, the unions agree with Dick Harrison that declining examination requirements pose a problem at the country’s higher education institutions. But this is driven by the demands for rapid throughput, not by union power, she insists.
“The structure of a course provides students with opportunities to meet the qualification requirements or course objectives. But it is not about lowering the demands,” says Caroline Sundberg.
She does not agree with the allegation that the student unions’ power has increased in recent years.
“2010 saw the abolishment of compulsory student union membership. The unions suddenly needed to focus more on membership recruitment. We see that the influence remains strong across the country, but the unions need to balance their operations in a different way to maintain an effective organisation,” says Caroline Sundberg.
She therefore welcomes the inquiry into student influence that has recently been appointed by the government. The Swedish Higher Education Authority has been commissioned to investigate the conditions of student influence since compulsory student union membership was abolished, and to see if there is a need for measures to strengthen independent student influence.
That the opposite situation exists – that student influence is too great – does not seem to be the view of the government or the Swedish Higher Education Authority.
A changed education system increases the pressure
One person who is not surprised that the university teachers feel increased pressure is Mats Benner, researcher and professor of research policy at Lund University. He notes that the Swedish system for research and higher education is presently characterised by a distinct division in the management of education and research.
“Education has in some sense become secondary, despite the fact that we have more students than ever. Once upon a time it was desirable to be a lecturer. Now it is more desirable to do research. In Sweden, many of those who teach have a lot more courses than teachers in other countries, while at the same time, a skilled researcher can completely ‘buy themselves out’ of teaching. Maybe it should be the other way around, that education is seen as a benefit and the natural starting point for all researchers at universities,” says Mats Benner.
Both the demands for rapid throughput and students’ expectations of high grades are view by him as natural – albeit undesirable – consequences of the education system structure, which dates back to the 1990s. At this point, Sweden went from a system of highly centralised educational planning, where the state to a large degree controlled the shape and size of the educational programmes, to a situation where students instead would select and combine their courses themselves. Both teachers and students were tired of a tightly regulated, inefficient system.
Institutions need to take greater responsibility
But as the students’ wishes increasingly steered the selection of courses and programmes, a need arose for a measure of how well resources were being used. Among other things, quality audits were introduced as well as a requirement that a certain amount of students would graduate.
“It was a revolution in its time, but all systems will be perverted of course,” says Mats Benner. “The new way solved problems, but others have arisen in their place. What is needed now is the courage to see that we have reached an impasse, and to discuss what we need to change.”
He is not upset by stories of students who come to the teacher and argue for a high grade. On the contrary, Mats Benner thinks that they are in many ways behaving rationally, as “the student has been made customer and king.”
“Before, places on programmes were attractive in themselves. But now when there are perhaps thirty different economics programmes, the grades become very important. Then you cannot be surprised that this leads to discussions about who should be given a passing grade.”
“So we have rational students on the one hand and overworked teachers on the other. How can we make this situation work? We must dare to engage in the discussion and learn from mistakes, not just whine,” says Mats Benner.
He would like to see the leadership of the institutions take greater responsibility and speak up if they see that the programmes cannot maintain a sufficient level with current resources.
“The teacher role has been a bit neglected by the institutions. Perhaps we need some kind of mix between, on the one hand, allowing the student’s selection to steer, and on the other hand, actually having an established design. For example, by contracting certain programmes to certain institutions. But no matter how it is resolved, it is not sustainable in the long run to be dependent on individual whistleblowers.”