How can interaction be quantified? The collaboration between institutions of higher education and society in general shall be rewarded financially, according to the research proposition presented in November.

How can you put a figure on interaction?

Svenska 2017-02-14

When new funds for research and education are allocated, interaction must also be factored in. The autumn’s budget bill will suggest how this could be done, although the proposal has been met with criticism.

Interaction between institutions of higher education (HEIs) and society in general shall be rewarded financially. This was one of the suggestions contained in the research proposition presented in November.

The money concerned derives from the increase in basic grants – money that goes directly to the universities. An amount of approximately SEK 1.3 billion up until 2020 must be allocated both this year and next year. The allocation process gives the same weighting to interaction as it does to the indicators of publications and external funds.

The proposal has stimulated much debate, but it is not entirely new. For the 2012 budget proposition, Vinnova was commissioned to develop a proposal for how the performance and quality of interaction between higher education institutions and the surrounding society could be evaluated.

By the end of December, the results were published in the report Evaluating the Role of HEIs’ Interaction with Surrounding Society. This also contained a proposal for a model that could be used to evaluate interaction (see box). This model has been tested in two pilot projects in 2015 and 2016.

“Our model is neither perfect nor set in stone. The model should be subject to continual development. But the most important conclusion is that it is possible to evaluate interaction”, says Maria Landgren, who is program manager at Vinnova and one of the authors of the report.

“It is inadequate”

This conclusion is not shared by Eva Åkesson, vice-chancellor at Uppsala University. The university is one of the 26 HEIs that was involved in the pilot project.

“The pilot project was a useful exercise that has taught us a lot and raised awareness of much of which we were previously unaware. But as a basis for allocating money? No, it is inadequate”, she says.

One of the reasons for Eva Åkesson’s objection is the fact that it is difficult to identify criteria for measuring the impact made by interaction.

“Interaction is an obvious and integral part of the work of HEIs in Sweden. We are happy to collaborate and often do so in a variety of ways. It is a many-faceted way of working. But using interaction as a basis for the allocation of funds to research is not a good idea. In fact, it is to be condemned; there are no simple ways of quantifying this.”

Different conditions

Maria Landgren believes that the purpose of Vinnova’s model is to promote the quality and development of HEIs.

“It must take into account the fact that interaction can contribute both to different results in different scientific fields and to the institutions’ different roles and conditions. Not everybody does things in the same way.”

So what does interaction actually mean? Vinnova’s definition is quite broad. According to the report, it is “an interactive process that creates mutual benefit, both for HEIs and collaboration partners”.

It is up to the HEI to determine which parties shall be involved and at what level. Karin Röding, who is State Secretary to the Minister for Higher Education and Research, believes that each university and college should work from their own specific conditions and use this as a basis upon which to choose the parties with whom they wish to collaborate.

“Collaboration can include a range of different activities and involve several different elements of a higher education institution. The parties involved can be anything from the general public to industry, the public sector and civil society.”

Difficult to measure

Pam Fredman is vice-chancellor of the University of Gothenburg. Like Eva Åkesson, she is sceptical about the proposal.

“It is not possible to rate the development of knowledge with a number. This is a continual process; it is not possible to evaluate the effect that a past instance of knowledge development has had on society today. Interaction is part of what we do and of what we have always done in education and research. Attempting to measure it is somewhat short-sighted and narrow-minded”, she says.

Pam Fredman cites the example of a new Master’s course that will begin this autumn at the University of Gothenburg, in collaboration with universities in Oslo, Helsinki and Århus. This will increase knowledge of how to prevent terrorism and radicalisation, as well as forming the basis for continued research in this field.

“How can you put a figure on this?”

Report referred for consideration

The report will be referred for consideration during the year. Vinnova will then be commissioned with another assignment, based upon the responses from this consultation. This could lead to a new basis for the allocation of new funds next year.

Later this year, an enquiry will be launched with the aim of reviewing the entire system of resource allocation. Among other things, it will investigate how interaction can be rewarded in the future.

Pam Fredman is critical of the fact that a further criterion for valuation is now to be introduced at the same time as a new system is being investigated.

“Introducing a new model with a new parameter while reviewing the system of resource allocation does not provide long-term conditions.”

Text: Siv Engelmark
Photo: Patrik C Österberg / All Over Pre / IBL