Where does research fit in the political debate?

This fall, the government will present a new research bill that will set the framework for the next four years. Or, rather, a research and innovation bill, as it has been the last couple of times. But the political debate is not very much about research and innovation, and in the January agreement that formed the basis of our government formation, research policy is almost invisible.

It is not a controversial area for the political parties, and it is not high in the course of the voters. In the light of shootings and blasts as well as the foreign policy security situation, the focus is rather on the police, the defense and the immigrants. And so, of course, our welfare system. But what is the basis for our welfare and how do we solve the societal challenges in the long term? We know that education, research and innovation are the sustainable answer. One also needs to survive while the world is saved, and of course we must have respect for that.

At the Vice Chancellor’s assembly in Steningevik on January 21-22, 2020, we got the opportunity to meet, listen to and ask questions to the Minister of Research and Higher Education, Matilda Ernkrans. Against the background of the above, she asked for our help to contribute arguments for increasing the research budget and to do our best to spread the message. We may need to talk more about how universities contribute to creating jobs and development for society, and how our research helps companies to transition into a more sustainable business operation, sometimes in quite concrete ways. An interesting argument put forward was to make the thought experiment what would happen if we did not invest in research and innovation? Since other parts of the world are constantly increasing their investments, especially in Asia, Sweden and Swedish companies would be left behind in competence and competitiveness. Probably many companies would choose to move out of the country, and at the same time we would see less of foreign investment. Jobs would be lost and, in the long run, our ability to maintain safety and welfare will be drastically impaired. No positive scenario then!

The goal is relatively modest, to maintain the same share of GDP for research and innovation as the current level. Perhaps this is what can realistically be achieved with today’s parliamentary situation. The Minister identified three priorities:

  • Access to higher education throughout the country
  • A safe working environment for students and staff
  • Research and education that solves society’s challenges

The latest point has been the focus of at least the three latest research and innovation bills, and it is hardly less relevant now. It can also be noted that the EU priorities for the upcoming Horizon Europe program are also well in line with Agenda 2030, i.e. the UN’s 17 global sustainability goals. This is good in several ways, and Swedish universities and colleges are well equipped to take on the challenge. We are certainly prepared at BTH to contribute to a sustainable future with our education and research. Maybe we need to be better at talking about it?

An important point at the Vice Chancellor’s assembly was the ticking bomb, which is the so-called productivity deduction. Since the 1994-95 academic year, all higher education institutions have been required an annual efficiency increase of 1-2% in the form of insufficient compensation for cost increases. Thus, the price tags for higher education have fallen to less than half the level that existed before this system was introduced. Is it possible to educate and do research faster today, or has perhaps IT and other modern tools made us able to make things cheaper? Maybe to some extent, but at the same time we have introduced increased control and evaluations that cost both time and money. A reasonable argument could have been that we can reduce our administrative costs in line with the productivity deduction. But the reduced revenue for the education itself is paid directly by our students and teachers (who have increasing difficulties to do a good job), which affects, among other things, the throughput and our ability to offer education to a wider clientele. Reduced base funding for research, in favor of externally funded grants, leads to worse coupling between research and education as well as reduced academic freedom. All these effects conflict with the political ambitions of the government. What speaks against our cause is the total accumulated capital of our higher education institutions. The National Audit Office’s report from 2018 shows a total capital that corresponds to about 20% of revenues. Uncertain income in the form of external grants and uncertain student inflows justify a certain buffer. In BTH’s case, the Executive Board has decided that the level of this should be about 15%, and in the next couple of years we will make strategic investments to reach that level. Other higher education institutions should do the same, which together could lead to improved quality in both education and research. However, capital cannot be used for business-as-usual, so the problem with the productivity deduction remains. Let’s hope that the current government finally decides to abolish this anomaly!

28 January 2020

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