Utskrift från Malmö högskolas webbplats www.mah.se

"Investing in widening participation should not mean lowering the requirements for students."

OPINION PIECE: Politicians need to safeguard the academic freedom, autonomy and integrity of higher education institutions, points out Kerstin Tham, vice-chancellor of Malmö University.

vice-chancellor Kerstin Tham

Birgitta Ohlsson, member of parliament for the Swedish Liberals, writes that higher education gets passed on from one generation to the next. Helene Hellmark Knutsson (Social Democratic Party), Swedish minister for higher education and research, seems to be well aware of this; during the summer, she presented a proposal to amend the Swedish Higher Education Act. 

This would entail higher education institutions actively promoting broadened recruitment as well as wider participation in higher education. The proposal has been criticised for advocating lower requirements and lower quality in higher education.

An investment in widening participation should not involve lowering the requirements for students or awarding pass grades to all students, thereby lowering the quality of education. The quality of higher education and its connection to research are fundamental for students to learn to take a critical, research-based, approach to knowledge. However, higher education institutions have a special responsibility towards groups from non-academic backgrounds.

Birgitta Ohlsson refers to the fact that almost 70 per cent of those who go on to higher education have parents with academic qualifications.

Malmö University, which will gain full university status at the turn of the next year, has been actively and successfully promoting broader recruitment and participation since its inception in 1998. Today, approximately 70 per cent of the students at Malmö University come from non-academic backgrounds, and around 30 per cent of them have an international background, while the national average is 20 per cent.

Malmö University works according to the principle that publicly funded education is a democratic right and that everyone who meets the conditions and is interested in higher education should feel it is a possible path. Utilising and sharing students’ knowledge, experiences and insights is an important condition for high quality in university courses and programmes. It is also a starting point for the work of the Swedish national network, Include, on broader recruitment and widening participation in higher education.

The country’s higher education institutions must assume their social responsibility, not by lowering the requirements and the quality of higher education, but by utilising and building on the knowledge and interests of people.

A diversity of knowledge, experiences and perspectives enriches the content of higher education and contributes to the development of a critical approach to knowledge and various complex societal phenomena.

When Malmö University acquires its official full status, it will develop its work of actively promoting broadened recruitment and widening participation. Furthermore, it will conduct research into teaching and learning in higher education in this area. Comprehensive initiatives are already underway at the various faculties to enable students to develop their ability to write and analyse academic texts.

Malmö University will also promote the students’ global engagement. The aim is to enable students to act as agents of change in their lives as professionally active and well-educated citizens.

Higher education institutions also have a social responsibility to contribute to civic education and life-long learning. This is more important than ever, with populism spreading and untruths being disseminated to a hitherto rare extent.

This is about arguing for — and proving — the value of research-based knowledge in all contexts. Higher education institutions around the world can support one another in this work.

By promoting widening participation in higher education, universities can contribute to an enriching diversity and generate knowledge and expertise to meet the future.

The knowledge and expertise present among the recently arrived refugees must be utilised. Many of them already have academic training on which they can build, while others wish nothing more than to learn Swedish as soon as possible so as to be able to continue their studies.

Sweden also needs to increase diversity in research studies by admitting more doctoral students from non-academic and international backgrounds, so that new knowledge can contribute to sustainable societal development.

Early in their education, students need to come into contact with research in order to be inspired to continue studying at the post-graduate level. At Malmö University, we believe that our most senior academics, i.e. the professors, should be present early on in teaching, preferably in the first semester. Research shows that the engagement of teaching staff and the involvement of students in teaching are important conditions for learning.

I welcome the fact that the issue of broader recruitment and widening participation has now come up on the political agenda. But it requires different perspectives and a different discussion, connected to the social responsibility of higher education institutions:

How can higher education institutions contribute new knowledge for a more sustainable societal development both locally and globally? How can the students be better prepared for higher education? Can upper secondary schools increase their requirements for study performance, or do we need some kind of preparatory year as a bridge between upper secondary school and higher education? 

Let us discuss these issues further within and outside academia. Politicians need to safeguard the academic freedom, autonomy and integrity of higher education institutions. Together, we must work for wider participation and research-based knowledge for sustainable societal development.

Kerstin Tham
Vice-chancellor of Malmö University

Last updated by Amanda Malmquist