The European University Association condemns the recent decision by the Swedish government to shorten the mandate of external members of university boards from three years to 17 months.
The Swedish government’s decision, predicated on the rationale that institutions need expertise to address new security threats, sets a worrying precedent. It represents undue interference in the institutional governance of universities, with the government unilaterally changing a well-established process regulating the nomination of external members on university boards. This process reflects the collaborative relationship between public authorities and higher education institutions in Sweden when it comes to board nominations.
Adequate governance arrangements provide a fundamental basis for institutional autonomy. While the participation of external members is an important accountability mechanism, it should not be changed unilaterally to meet short-term objectives. While there may be grounds for the ministry and universities to define a skills-based approach to the selection of external members, if indeed new needs arise, this should only be done in dialogue with the sector and in full respect of the current legal framework.
As shown by the latest edition of EUA’s Autonomy Scorecard “University Autonomy in Europe IV: The Scorecard 2023”, ad hoc interventions by public authorities, including political influence over the appointment of external board members, can seriously undermine institutional autonomy. This is cause for major concern, in particular for Sweden, which the Scorecard already lists as having low organisational autonomy.
A tense geopolitical context has led to greater scrutiny over universities’ international partnerships, as well as the challenges these might pose in terms of knowledge security. While these are legitimate concerns, EUA urges policy makers to ensure their dialogue with the university sector is built on transparency and trust. Furthermore, this decision could set an unfortunate precedent, i.e. that any new challenges for universities could be met with serious interference in the governance and autonomy of institutions.
EUA therefore calls on the Swedish government to reconsider its decision and to develop more appropriate tools to address security threats – in discussion and collaboration with the Swedish university sector, rather than through misguided and unilateral action.
The Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF), EUA’s collective member in Sweden, published a statement on 28 April raising a number of concerns about this development.