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Polaris of Enlightenment

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Polaris of Enlightenment

Report: Academic freedom in Sweden is under threat

Totalitarianism

Published 19 May 2024
- By Editorial Staff
Education Minister Mats Persson (L) is concerned about the situation at Swedish higher education institutions.

According to a new report from the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ), political control and the funding system are the biggest threats to academic freedom at Swedish higher education institutions.

Despite earlier concerns about a culture of cancellation and influence campaigns from the extreme left, the survey shows that the majority of respondents still point to other factors as more tangible problems.

The report, which includes over 300 pages of responses, case studies and surveys, seeks to provide an in-depth insight into the problems faced by academics in today’s society, reports the popular science Swedish journal Forskning och Framsteg.

According to Education Minister Mats Persson (L), the results are “worse than expected” and he describes the report as “worrying”.

That researchers feel compelled to self-censor, that there is a culture of silence and a low ceiling. It’s worse than I thought. It is serious. Self-censorship is a very dangerous development

“Political control”

According to the survey, which involved over 3,000 teachers, researchers and doctoral students, more than half believe that academic freedom is under threat.

Political pressure and financial restrictions are particularly worrying according to respondents, with 29 percent citing political control as a threat and 28 percent pointing to research funding.

Martin Bergman and project manager Caroline Tovatt are two of the authors of the report. Project manager Caroline Tovatt summarizes to Swedish Bonnier-owned Dagens Nyheter:

It has been a complex assignment where we have made both a national and international outlook. Sweden is among the top ten percent in terms of academic freedom, especially individual freedom. Sweden is not as good when it comes to institutional autonomy, i.e. universities in relation to the state.

Fellow author Martin Bergman points to the risk of losing funding.

According to the researchers and teachers themselves, it’s about not daring to take risks or say certain things. This is also linked to research funding, where people are cautious and don’t test the boldest ideas. They stick to an academic middle ground so that they feel they can secure funding for their research.

Södertörn University south of Stockholm. Photo: AleWi/CC BY-SA 4.0

Teachers are afraid

The report also looks at specific case studies where teachers are reported inappropriately by sensitive students. One example is a high-profile incident from Uppsala University in 2019.

There, a lecturer in museum and cultural studies used the, according to some, controversial “n-word” during a panel discussion at the master’s program in ABM (archives, libraries and museums).

The word was used in the context of classification in older cataloguing systems. After four students reacted, the department was contacted and launched an investigation into alleged “harassment”.

The teacher was later called to a meeting with the departmental management and the university’s ‘equal opportunities specialist’.

There was no understanding of the context, the meeting was about me being declared reprehensible. I then asked to skip the upcoming teaching with the group, out of respect for the students’ feelings, the singled out teacher has commented on the case.

According to UKÄ, it is important to handle conflicts in a way that maintains both the work environment and an open discussion climate. Caroline Tovatt continues.

The survey responses and the report show that there are different perceptions of what academic freedom is.

Despite these, the report emphasizes that Sweden generally has good academic freedom in international comparison. But that there is room for improvement, especially when it comes to supporting researchers and teachers who face obstacles in their work.

Researchers on what threatens academic freedom

1. Political control and influence (29%)
2. Research funding/system (28)
3. Homogeneity, standardization, academic conformism (10)
4. Targeted, narrow calls, initiatives (7)
5. Ethical review (6)
6. Dependence on external funding, too high a proportion of externally funded research (5)
7.Shortening of board terms of office, politically appointed boards (5)
8. Focus on results (4)
9. Government, Tidö agreement (4)
10. Right-wing extremism, right-wing extremist forces (3)
11. Hate and threats, harassment (3)
12. Administrative burden, bureaucratization (3)

Source: Universitetskanslerämbetet

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