Freedom - Responsibility - Competence


Report of the Swedish Higher Education Commission

January, 1992




Recent reforms of higher education in Sweden

The Swedish educational system has undergone a continuing series of transformations since the 1950's. A nine-year comprehensive school and an upper secondary school which integrates theoretical and vocational study programmes have gone into operation. Adult education has been expanded, and in 1977 a far-reaching reform of the higher education system took place. It involved the creation of a single and coherent system for all types of post-secondary education, the decentralisation of decision-making, broadened admission policies for higher education, better geographic distribution of educational programmes, the creation of recurrent educational opportunities and new measures to strengthen links between post-secondary education and research and create closer ties between education and other areas of society.

The new Swedish collective name for higher education, "hφgskola", encompasses not only traditional university studies by also those at the various professional colleges and a number of programmes previously taught within the upper secondary school system. Most of the programmes included in the broadened definition of higher education are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. In addition, there are a number of programmes under the purviews of the Ministry of Agriculture. Those responsible for the higher education system are central government, the county councils and some municipalities. Local government-operated higher education consists of the programmes once administered as part of the upper secondary school, but which have now been transferred to the higher education system; most of these programmes involve health care training.

Roughly 35 % of young persons in Sweden go on to higher education after completion of their compulsory and upper secondary schooling. About 65 % of those opting for 3 and 4-year study programmes in the upper secondary school enrol for higher education. First-time enrollments every year total about 40,000.





To a large extent the various reforms within higher education in Sweden since the 1960's have concentrated on questions of the expansion and organisation of higher education studies. At the same time there has been a lively discussion on research policies. Towards the end of the 1980's, both teachers and students criticised what they saw as deficiencies in undergraduate education. In 1989 the Swedish Government therefore decided to appoint "The Higher Education Commission", chaired by the Vice-Chancellor of Lund University, Professor Hεkan Westling. The main report of the Commission - "Freedom - Responsibility - Competence" - was delivered in January, 1992. A final report on funding principles in higher education is to be published later in 1992.

The Commission's work has been focused on the quality of education in all kinds of higher education institutions. The main task of the Commission was to analyse the current status of higher education and to propose measures to make the most efficient use of the available resources for higher education in a national perspective. The focus of the Commission's assignment has, however, been limited to undergraduate education.

The following is a summary of the main content of the report.


The work of the Commission

In the Commission's view, the status of undergraduate teaching within higher education is the fundamental problem to be handled. The status of teaching and of undergraduate courses in higher education is considerably lower than that of research, and in this respect their standing has gradually deteriorated over recent decades. The measures suggested to raise the status of undergraduate studies fall mainly under the following headings:

• Assessment of qualifications: Teaching qualifications must be documented and considered more precisely and more methodically, for example at the time of appointment, than has generally hitherto been the case.

• Teacher training in higher education: The Commission argues that basic teacher training is necessary for all staff with teaching duties in higher education. In addition, all teachers should have the right to continuous further training so as to develop further in their teaching role. A minimum training qualification should be introduced as a requirement for teaching posts.

• Developmental work: There must be adequate resources - both locally, within the individual institution, and at the national level - for the development of undergraduate studies and to stimulate experimentation in teaching. The "Council for the Renewal of Undergraduate Education", which was established in 1990 at the suggestion of the Commission, is a part of this aim.

• The relationship between undergraduate studies and research is fundamental to universities and colleges. A number of measures to strengthen this relationship are suggested in the report.



It is generally admitted that undergraduate teaching has a lower status within higher education than research. A fundamental reason for this is that research qualifications as a rule carry more weight at the time of appointment, promotion and setting of salary levels. However, in Sweden this attitude has been strengthened by the signals given out by decisions on political and grant-making priorities.

The result of this is a bisection of the entire higher education system which seems to be peculiar to Sweden. The Commission points out that the relationship between education and research is of fundamental importance to universities and colleges; it must be strengthened and not weakened. In the Commission's opinion it is therefore necessary to reexamine the organisational, financial and administrative structures which today strive in the opposite direction.

The Commission summarises its suggestions thus:

• It should be made clear in official documents that research is in principle an integral part of all categories of teaching posts in higher education.

• The institutions should make efforts to facilitate access to postgraduate studies for those teachers who have not taken a doctor's degree.

• Researchers working on externally-financed projects should regularly take part in the teaching in their department.



The students

After giving an account of some of the studies sponsored by the Commission, the report presents the following conclusions:

• There is a need for clearly set out common information material which covers the whole of the Swedish higher education system. Even in a decentralised organisation there is sufficient common basic information to justify such a publication.

• Contact between higher education and upper secondary schools needs to be increased where information about higher education is concerned.

• mpressions made during the first few weeks can be crucial for continued motivation, for the sense of community and for the study environment as a whole in "the good department". Institutions therefore need to discuss how this introductory period should be organised.

• Institutions should be attentive to the students' need of help in developing their study techniques and improving their study practices.

• The students' studying environment is an important factor in terms of general well-being, effectiveness of study and study results. Swedish universities and colleges often lack an infrastructure for informal social contact between teachers and students or between students. The layout of the premises is often the biggest barrier to a good studying environment in this sense. One aspect of great importance in this context is access to studying space (reading rooms in libraries, etc).

• The rules of the student grant system may have negative consequences for the organisation of study programmes. The requirements regarding study performance for prolonged grants has been one of the reasons why teaching and examinations have often been divided up into sections which are both too numerous and too small.


Teachers get their say

Teachers in higher education often criticise the fact that educational reforms are instigated by politically elected decision-makers and drawn up by educational administrators, and that teachers and students are then expected to implement them.

Through a questionnaire to a representative sample of teachers in higher education, the Commission has tried to get a picture of the opinions of the teaching staff at universities and colleges. The results have been published in a separate report.

The picture of teachers in Swedish higher education given by the results of the questionnaire shows that the teachers are happy with and committed to their work; they have a positive view of the students and they work hard, but they are less satisfied with the material conditions of their employment. They value the freedom, the independence and opportunities for development highly. They are interested in continued development and have a number of suggestions for improvements. They are keen to find a way of safeguarding the quality of undergraduate studies.



Teaching and learning

Education and teaching are cultural phenomena. They are characterised by their cultural, historical, social and financial context; they alter with time, as society alters. It is therefore not possible to give a general answer to the question of what an educational system should be like or how teaching should be carried out.

The report outlines of parts of the educational research which has influenced developments in teaching in Swedish higher education in recent decades. The conclusions are summarised as follows:

• Every teacher should have the opportunity to become acquainted with the results of the educational research and development work which has taken place in recent decades so as to be able to make use of it when teaching.

• Institutions should allocate financial and personnel resources for educational development work.


Forms of teaching

The Commission's survey of the density of teaching in universities and colleges shows that there are major differences in the learning support available to the students on different courses. Our remit questions whether these differences, which often have a historical basis, are still justified. These questions will be discussed in more detail in a separate report.

The Commission does not want to attempt to establish any universal guidelines with regard to the forms of learning support to students. Different courses of study have by tradition different forms of teaching, and this must probably continue to be the case. Also, different categories of students need different forms of learning support. The survey of teaching practices summarised in this chapter also shows that the variation in forms of teaching between different courses can be significant.

The Commission summarises its views as follows:

• It is not possible to establish universal guidelines for achieving a balance between the different forms of teaching. But it is emphasised that any teaching input, whatever it is called, should always support and promote the students' own activities.

• On this basis, it is desirable that there should be an increased emphasis on teaching in seminar form.

• A development towards more individually-focussed forms of learning support similar to the tutorials of the British university system is also necessary, according to the Commission.

• The knowledge and skills of professors and other senior researchers ought to be put to greater use in undergraduate education than is the case today.


Experiences of problem-based learning

One method of teaching which is much studied today is that which is based on the principle of problem-based learning (PBL). The Commission considers that problem-based learning has many advantages. PBL makes a connection with the students' earlier knowledge and skills, encourages a scientific attitude and handles the subject matter in a meaningful context. In addition, this method of organising studies stimulates intellectual curiosity, activity, personal responsibility and control over one's own learning, and thereby contributes to personal development.

A prerequisite for the PBL method is a willingness on the part of the teachers to think of fresh ideas. It is also requires more preparation and guidance from the teachers' side in comparison with conventional teaching. Further, there is a need for better resources in the form of libraries, literature and venues for group work. The resource requirements for PBL should not however be judged solely by comparing with conventional teaching but also by comparing with teaching which fulfils its objectives to the same extent.

The Commission suggests

• that both local and central development resources continue to be invested in experiments with PBL also in other areas than the health sciences, and

• that these experiments are followed by systematic evaluations which take note of changes in knowledge, proficiency and opinions amongst the students.



Many studies have shown how examinations govern the students' style of learning. For the end result, measured in terms of what has been learned, the examinations is often as significant as the teaching. The examination is also one of the most important instruments for the monitoring and control of the quality of the course.

The report refers to a study on the examination as quality control in higher education, sponsored by the Commission. The Commission draws the conclusion that the current Swedish practice of dividing the course into a large number of successive tests, without an all-embracing final examination, ought to be questioned. It is also important that the examination results of different higher education establishments should be comparable. In the Commission's opinion, common or coordinated tests should be encouraged.

The Commission argues that the importance of the examination as quality control warrants the participation of more than one examiner. A system of external examiners would be of great importance in assuring quality and equivalence in Swedish higher education, the report concludes.

In the report, the conclusions and suggestions are summarised as follows:

• The examination, which is an important part of quality control in higher education, should not be limited simply to checking certain factual knowledge. The examination should be in keeping with the superior aim of promoting the students' independent and critical attitude to the subject matter.

• Examinations should therefore cover considerably larger sections of the course than today - if possible a half or a whole year of study - which will make it possible to make a more comprehensive judgment of the knowledge and skills of the students. This does not exclude sectional exams, or the equivalent, in shorter course sections.

• Examinations of a summarising nature or which cover larger sections of a course should generally require the use of external examiners. As a primary objective, it is suggested that any study programme that leads to a degree should include at least one such examination.



Quality in higher education

• The accountability of higher education

As government inanced institutions, higher education establishments have a clear duty to account both for their use of resources and for the results - both quantitative and qualitative - of their work. In the case of research there is an established and well-functioning system of quality control; but there is currently no equivalent for undergraduate studies. Swedish higher education needs a "quality system" for undergraduate studies too.

But two important conditions must be met if an evaluation system is to avoid negative consequences: in the first place the evaluation must consider all aspects of the study programme and take into account the fact that the programme has several different aims, in the second place crude statistics should not be used mechanically as a basis for the decisions of superior authorities without there being an opportunity for those who are affected to give an explanation for the result.

• Quality in higher education

The concept of "quality" in higher education is not easy to grasp, and it can be given different meanings depending on the viewpoint of the observer. Different interested parties make different - and legitimate - demands on education. From our point of view, however, the most important interest group in higher education is the students. It is above all their interests and needs which should guide decisions on priorities and quality assessment.

In the final analysis, therefore, a fundamental factor in the assessment of quality must be the quality of the result of the studies - i.e. what the student has assimilated when the course is at an end. It is this quality aspect that the interested parties in higher education (both the students and society/the employment market) have most reason to be interested in.

• Quality assurance

The development towards an increasing focus on objectives and results makes it necessary to find a satisfactory form for quality assurance. Quality control must essentially be a matter for the institutions themselves, but it is at the same time important that society should be able to rely on the institutions to take full responsibility for quality assurance.

The Commission indicates some quality assurance procedures which are considered important:

- New courses or study programmes should be subjected to a validation process focusing on quality before they start.

- There must be a continuous evaluation of the teaching from the students' point of view.

- The examination is a fundamental element in quality control. The Commission considers that external examiners should to be the rule in Swedish higher education. This will probably require a change to examinations summarising larger course sections than today. In addition it is important that common or coordinated tests are used to a greater extent than is currently the case.

- At the national level there is a need for some form of subject-based body for the exchange of experience, consultation and cooperation.


Monitoring and evaluation

The monitoring of results, quality assurance and evaluation should be seen as interacting factors in a coherent quality system. The main of monitoring is to give an overview of, and control over, the work of the educational establishment, while evaluation aims to provide a basis for development and regeneration.

The monitoring of results is based on routine reporting which is a part of the yearly report of the institutions. Evaluation should be based upon a self-evaluation by those who have local responsibility for education. To this self-evaluation is added an external judgment ("peer review") which is communicated to those involved and can be a basis for development and charge. Finally, if it is to have any meaning, the evaluation must lead to action.

Each sector in higher education organisation is responsible for monitoring and evaluating its work. At the local level the board of the institution bears the formal responsibility for evaluations within its own establishment. The practical evaluation work must, however take place within the individual department. Sometimes, however, the evaluation must be focussed on the study programme rather than on the department, especially in the case of self-contained, examination-orientated courses.

There is also a need for evaluations at the national level, with international perspectives. There should be a long-term programme for evaluation work over, for example, a five-year period, so that institutions are aware of which areas are to be evaluated at national level and can adapt local evaluations accordingly.

Evaluation of courses

The students' assessment of the course can be a valuable indicator of the effectiveness of the teaching. A student assessment alone, however, rarely reveals the causes of any possible problems, and neither does it offer any guarantee of constructive improvements.

On the other hand, course evaluations carried out jointly by teachers and students can be a powerful instrument for developing the quality of the course, of the students' learning and of teachers' skills and knowledge. Evaluations of this kind at the basic level can be seen as one of the cornerstones of quality assurance in higher education.

The report summarises:

• Student participation should be a natural feature of all types of course evaluation.

• Longer courses should be evaluated by students and teachers together, and the results should influence the future planning of the course.

• The evaluation at the end of a course can be summarised an assessed in a course report, which can, for example, be used as a basis for decisions on possible changes.

• Responsibility for seeing that the evaluation takes place lies ultimately with the board of the institution, even if the practical work is delegated to the department.



Teaching qualifications

The status of undergraduate teaching in academia and the relative weight of the teaching commitments of academics depend to a large extent on the way teaching qualifications are assessed for promotion etc. This question was therefore made a priority in the work of the Commission, and a preliminary report with our suggested guidelines and recommendations was published during the autumn of 1990.

In the final report, the results of a couple of questionnaires given to the institutions about the assessment of educational qualifications at the time of employment are summarised. We also give examples from other countries and give an account of some recent Swedish experiences of methods of assessing teachers.

A central question is of course to what extent teaching ability can be assessed and documented. The question is discussed in detail, with one of the background reports commissioned by the enquiry as a starting point.

The following is a summary of the views expressed in the report:

• When academic qualifications are being assessed - at the time of appointment, when pay levels are being discussed etc. - both research qualifications and teaching excellence need to be taken into and account, albeit with different emphasis depending on the type of post.

• In order that teaching qualifications be given more consideration than they have been given previously, the documentation must be better and more comprehensive than is currently the case. This is primarily the responsibility of the applicant.

• In appendices to the report, there are (a) suggested guidelines for the documentation and assessment of educational qualifications, intends both for applicants and for appointment boards, and (b) a memo with suggested criteria for the assessment of teaching ability.

• The requirements with regard to educational competence for teaching posts should be made explicit. A basic teacher's training (corresponding in total to 6 working weeks) should be a minimum requirement for all teaching posts.

• As a basis for the appraisal of teaching ability each teacher should have the right to an opinion of their ability. This should normally be given by the head of the department where the teacher is employed. The basis and form of this appraisal are discussed in detail.

Staff development for teachers in higher education

The teachers' level of competence is of strategic importance for the quality of higher education. The Commission suggests an action programme for educational training as a part of the teachers' workload. In the programme, emphasis is laid on developmental work in the teacher's own department.

• Basic qualification as a teacher requires the completion of the first part of the programme (six weeks). This part should be completed during the first year of service.

• Qualification as a lecturer should additionally require the completion of the second part of the programme (ten weeks over a period of five years).

• All teachers should be entitled to take part in the third part of the programme (one week per year).

• Each department is responsible for seeing that its teachers are given the opportunity to follow the training programme and that a senior teacher is appointed as a mentor for new teachers.

• The basic course should be offered or required within the framework of research training.

• Each institution is responsible for seeing that there is a base organisation and enough operational resources to support the realisation of the training programme.

• A national coordinating body for staff development should be created.



Management and responsibility in higher education

The Commission has initiated some studies of management questions in universities and colleges. The report gives an account of these analyses.

The Commission concludes that questions of management will have increasing importance in a decentralised system of higher education. One starting point should be the characterisation of the university as a "multi-professional organisation", a concept which originated in one of the reports to the Commission. The management at various levels must put together values and visions which are common to the different professional groups. This produces synergy and is a prerequisite for the recruitment of good managers.

The internal organisation of universities and colleges must be allowed to vary depending on size and degree of diversification. The organisational link between education and research should be strengthened.

The proposals are summarised as follows:

• The organisational structure should have four core functions: strong and self-sufficient departments, an institutional management with a strategically coordinating role, in large institutions also planning and decision-making middle (faculty) level bodies for education and research, and good administrative support functions.

• Particularly in the case of the large universities, consideration should be given to establishing an advisory academic body covering the whole institution, which could perhaps be called the "academic senate".

• Each institution should be responsible for a programme of management development, preferably working jointly with other institutions on a regional or national level.


"The good department"

In the brief of the Commission, attention is drawn particularly to the organisation of the basic units of institutions of higher education, the departments of various disciplines. In the report, the Commission distinguishes two approaches which lead to what for want of better terms is called the "expedient" department and the "good" department.

The concept of the "expedient" department is reserved for the model which seems most expedient from the administrative - perhaps the university management's - point of view. It is this concept of a department which underlies the discussion in a previous government statement about the necessity of merging of small departments.

The concept of the "good" department is something that is seen as having its basis in the internal life of the department. It implies an intellectually stimulating environment for all who work there and for the students whose studies are temporarily linked to it. A "good" department is perhaps most likely to be found in a unit whose tasks are reasonably homogeneous.

The administratively "expedient" department has a certain minimum size determined by the fact that decentralisation of responsibilities and powers requires a certain administrative competence and certain service functions related to the number of employees. The "good" department on the other hand has a certain maximum size which is determined by the number of people who can be brought together in solidarity around reasonably homogeneous tasks. It is true for both types of department that, for the scientific and educational environment to be of an acceptable quality, the combined skills and knowledge of considerably more than one or two academic teachers are required.

The final balance between the two departmental concepts will always be a compromise, which combines the above-mentioned factors with additional historical and psychological aspects as well as factors concerning the premises. The Commission emphasises that, when all aspects are considered, it is the factors which speak in favour of the "good" department which should be given the greatest emphasis.

The Commission's views concerning the departmental organisation are summarised as follows:

• Higher education should take place in subject-based or subject-area-based departments, where education, research and other assignments can be common obligations and commitments.

• A department should generally be of a size which lends itself to management by a representative body (a departmental board).

• The desire to have large, administratively effective departments must however be balanced with the desire to have departments with homogeneous tasks.

• The management of the institution should consider establishing groups of departments as an alternative to very large departments.

• The provision of departmental space should be organised so that each department is given compactly-laid out premises with space for students.

• One important aspects of management responsibility is to make the objectives of the work known and accepted by all colleagues.

• The institution should carry out staff development programmes with the focus on the department and its management.



Educational development wor

The Commission points out that the primary responsibility for education and teaching lies unequivocally with the individual department, its management, teachers and students. This responsibility also covers curricular and educational development.

However, experience shows that one prerequisite for regeneration and development is that there are defined resources set aside by the department, the most important resource factor being the time of the teacher. Further, there is a need for the institution as a whole to have some collective developmental resources, and experienced staff, that departments can draw on. In the report, the Commission discusses both the organisation of educational development work within the individual institution and the resources at the national level.

It is important that the management commits itself to the development of teaching. Every institution needs a local educational programme - perhaps as a part of a comprehensive development programme for the institution. It would probably be wise for the institution to create a forum for the discussion of questions concerning the quality and development of teaching - an "educational council" or something similar. In the opinion of the Commission, every institution also needs a specialist function for educational development which can support development work at the departments and take the responsibility for certain common questions (including the educational training of the teachers).

There is also a need on the national level for resources for development and support for new initiatives. The "Council for the Renewal of Undergraduate Education", which was established after a proposal by the Commission, will play an important part in this development, and should therefore be allowed to continue its work after the initial three-year trial period.


Libraries and information

The question of the role of university and college libraries in relation to the quality of education has been analysed by a special working group. The group's report has led the Commission to the following conclusions and proposals:

• Swedish university and college libraries are, with a few exceptions, below the comparable international standard. There is a need for an improvement programme, not least at the new colleges. The government should initiate a special review of the resource needs of the university or college library.

• The improvement programme should be linked to organisational changes and a number of rationalisation measures, largely according to guidelines which have been drawn up in an evaluation by the British librarian Maurice B. Line on behalf of the Nordic body "Nordinfo". Libraries should exist to provide a service to researchers, teachers and students rather than to preserve collections.

• University and college teachers must be given better opportunities in internal training to enable them to make use of libraries and other sources of information in their teaching.

• One of the aims of higher education must be to ensure that all students learn the theory and practice of using libraries and other sources of information. This can most easily be achieved if they are given tasks at an early stage which require this knowledge.

• The needs of the students in terms of study places and group rooms must be taken into consideration when library buildings are planned.

• The role of the library in information provision should be taken into consideration during the basic and further training of librarians.


Computers in teaching

Even if the enthusiasm for the potential of the computer within undergraduate teaching has at times perhaps been far too great in relation to the actual possibilities and results, it seems that we are now on the way to a realistic view which justifies special undertakings.

In the first place, higher education students should learn, to a far greater degree than today, to use the computer as a tool. This can improve the quality of written reports and increase the accessibility of databases and literature, which makes studying more effective and increases the students' motivation to study. The use of computers should thus be a regular element in any study programme and where appropriate be a requirement for passing a course.

Secondly, the drawing up of suitable forms of computer support for teaching and learning must of course be regarded as an addition to the teaching qualifications of a teacher. There is also a need for comprehensive training efforts so that a large proportion of the teaching body can benefit from the latest developments in computer technology. The Commission points out that, in general, higher education teachers in Sweden are poorly equipped to use the services that are available via computer networks, e.g. computer conferences and searching in databases and libraries.

The British model of subject-based centres for the development of computer support for education ought to be applicable in Sweden too. Such centres may in addition find advantages in cooperating with their equivalents in Britain. The Commission suggests a three year programme with subject-based development centres.



Scientific foundation course etc.

The Commission's remit does not include the content of educational courses. However, one exception is the the question of so-called scientific foundation courses and equivalent elements in undergraduate education, which came about through a statement from the parliamentary education committee and an initiative of the Swedish National Union of Students.

The Commission has supported some experiments with this kind of courses. The conclusions are summarised as follows:

• All students in examination orientated study courses should - irrespective of type of institution or course - be given an introduction to the history of science, scientific theory and scientific method. This introduction should also be followed up in the regular course.

• At larger institutions, mainly the universities, there should be a general scientific foundation course of one term (20 points/weeks) as part of a recommended educational study programme. Such a course is a good introduction to university studies but can also be of use, in its entirety or in certain parts, in later phases of the course.

• Cooperation between universities and colleges in this area should be encouraged since there is a lack of teachers, study material etc. This cooperation should aim at exchanging ideas and experiences relating to the content and planning of the foundation course as well as to the training of the teachers. The responsibility for this cooperation should be entrusted to an institution with extensive experience of the field. This could also include the responsibility of acting as a databank, i. e. keeping track of the stock of study materials and communicating this information to other institutions.