Investigation of Governmental Steering and Resource Distribution of Universities (STRUT)

Since April 2017, Pam Fredman, former Vice-Chancellor at the University of Gothenburg, has lead the investigation ”Steering for strong and responsible universities”, called ”Struten”. The task was recently prolonged, and the new final date is February 1, 2019. The investigation can be followed on its webpage (in Swedish).

The purpose of the investigation is to take a holistic view of the university steering, including distribution of resources. The steering should among others support the goal that Sweden should be one of the world´s leading research and innovation countries and a leading knowledge nation. Below, I try to give a summary of what the investigator has proposed so far. I also provide some thoughts from a draft of a response from SUHF (the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutes), which is led by Lars Niklasson, V-C of the University of Skövde.

In this context I want to challenge you to read the following interesting investigation of research quality (in Swedish), from Stephen Hwang, V-C of Halmstad University (there are also other interesting reports available through Struten’s webpage).

The Model

The proposed model for steering and distribution of resources can be summarized in the following three components:

The first part is a collective bill for higher education and research (and innovation). It is done every fourth year which gives some stability. The bill is preceded by a process where different stakeholders can give input and where a special analysis function contributes with support in the form of analyses and evaluations. The purpose of the analysis unit is to give prerequisites for a more knowledge-based steering of the higher education sector.

The collective bill should then result in agreements between the government and universities. These give frames for our activities and set focus on prioritized goals. The investigation stresses the need for a dialogue between government and universities, and that we should be given a bigger responsibility for our own goals. Besides “business as usual”, the goals can include gender equality, broader recruitment, life-long learning and collaboration with the surrounding society.

The third and last stage of the STRUT-process is a half-time dialogue regarding the agreement and fulfillment of goals. Together with the final evaluation before the next bill, this dialogue constitutes a base for the next coming agreement.

The proposed process is logical, and the main purposes of the agreements are appealing: to encourage profiling, improve strategic dialogue, increase quality and efficiency, and increase transparency. Yet, I see these dialogues as the most challenging component of the model. Earlier experience from governmental dialogues is that the communication is mainly one-way. Here, one is supposed to start from data and analysis as well as our own thoughts about future development, and end up in a dialogue protocol which forms the basis for a formal decision about our requirements and resources.

Another interesting component of the STRUT-evaluation is a collected grant for research and education, like what is the case in other countries. It is easy to argue for such a view, as today’s system hardly promotes the integration of research and education, and that we sometimes need to split income and expenses in artificial ways. The proposal is anyway that the income is based on research and education separately, but the universities can use these more freely. This is a change that SUHF welcomes, but which may not give a great effect in itself.

Regarding distribution of education funding, no major change is proposed except for an increased proportion of funding based on number of students in favour of their earned study credits. The base funding for research is proposed to generally increase, naturally in favour of the availability of funding from governmental agencies. The investigation is in general against quality-based base funding, but proposes a coupling between base funding for research in proportion to education volume, at least 12 000 SEK per full-time equivalent.

In my (too) short summary I also want to point out that the STRUT investigation does not argue for a major redistribution of funding to the different universities. The starting point should be today’s situation, and the new model should be introduced successively with new resources. It is not entirely clear how that should come through.

Draft of a response from SUHF

The current draft of a response, authored by Lars Niklasson from HiS, is to a great deal positive, in particular to the problem formulation. However, some concerns and questions are raised, of which a few are listed below:

  • How will the universities’ autonomy be affected by the model? Is there a risk for increased detail in our control?
  • There is an apparent risk that the universities will develop into different roles in the higher education landscape (regional versus international, undergraduate versus graduate) rather than into a topic-wise profiling.
  • Niklasson is against that the redistribution of research funding from the governmental agencies is based on how much each university receives today. Instead, he argues that it should only be based on education volume. I find this hard to support, as it should lead to a dramatic total redistribution of funding, and potentially also to a reduced research quality (though not obvious according to Stephen Wang’s report).
  • The investigation lifts the importance of collaboration with the surrounding society, but it fails to give incentives or proposals for developing this. The same is true regarding life-long learning.

I share Niklasson’s concern that the ”smaller universities” (like BTH) risk to be steered towards regional competence providers at basic and (possibly) advanced level only. He writes cleverly: The system should instead contribute to that all universities develop different topic-wise profiles within which one is encouraged to build complete and nationally and internationally competitive environments with education at all levels, and research, of high quality.”

The story will continue. Regardless, the question remains how the STRUT will survive the forming of a new government and a new minister. None of its predecessors has, and without a broad anchoring in SUHF the chances are slim. I am happy to respond to questions and ideas about the STRUT and its topic from those who are extra interested. For the others I hope I have at least given you a quick introduction to university politics at the Swedish national level.

20 November 2018