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Massive open online courses (MOOCs) at Swedish universities (2016:1)

The Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), through a referral dated 13 April 2016, was given the opportunity to comment on the above report.

Consultation response


The development of massive open online courses is part of a larger international development trend and SULF, consequently, welcomes the Swedish Higher Education Authority’s analysis of the issue of MOOCs in a Swedish context. In an increasingly globalised world, with a considerable degree of mobility between universities, the importance of internationally-accepted knowledge and education is increasing, and higher education must provide students with a good foundation for lifelong learning. However, knowledge is not only the property of individual students, it is an investment in our common future. Consequently, it is vital that all publicly-funded education is free to all students and that public funds are used in the best manner possible. Academic education of good quality provides students with the tools to develop their critical thinking abilities and is essential for cultural, scientific, economic and technological development.

The SULF Congress has taken a decision that the union will work to defend and develop academic freedom in order to strengthen the profession with the aim of raising the quality of education and research. This forms the foundation of our response.

Summary of SULF views

In principle, SULF has nothing against universities developing MOOCs. However, in the current situation we find it difficult to see how to justify using annual government grants to finance a new form of education that does not possess the preconditions to maintain the same quality level as regular university education. The purpose of using grant funds to develop MOOCs is also not stated clearly in this report. Normal higher education is already severely under-funded and SULF is therefore opposed to grant funds being used to operate MOOCs. The MSEK 60 in special funds that the Education Authority is proposing will also certainly be taken from the framework of the education budget and in the current situation that money could be better spent elsewhere.

Since the introduction of the current resource allocation system, every year funds for education are reduced in the form of a productivity deduction. This has led to dwindling resources per student and resulted in less instructional time for students, larger class sizes, less time for teacher preparation and evaluation, unpaid overtime for teachers and research time often being used for teaching, which means that the quality of research also suffers. Until these deficiencies are corrected, it is not responsible to spend on a new form of education with an unclear purpose. SULF does not consider that regular grant funding is to be used to organise MOOCs because this could further exacerbate the erosion of resources for education.

Regarding charges, SULF believes that all publicly-funded higher education should be free of charge even when it comes to course certificates.

  • SULF rejects the proposal to make MOOCs a special form of education.
  • SULF rejects the idea of constitutional support and a new ordinance because SULF does not consider that government grant funding should be used for another form of education, i.e. MOOCs. Neither can SULF see that teachers’ intellectual property rights can be guaranteed under this proposal.
  • SULF rejects the proposal that universities and university colleges will finance the cost of MOOCs from their government grant funding.
  • SULF rejects the proposal that universities would be able to charge fees for the issue of course certificates.


SULF views on report proposals

Higher Education Authority proposal

This report proposes that massive open online courses (MOOCs) should be introduced at Swedish universities. This should be achieved by the universities being given the opportunity to organise open online education in the form of courses as a special form of education. Universities should individually decide whether such courses are to be organised at their own universities. Offering open online courses must be an opportunity for the universities, not an assigned task. Experiences from developing open online courses will be utilised in regular educational courses.

SULF views

In principle, SULF has nothing against universities developing open online courses. However, if the government decides to create a specific ordinance and a specific form of education, this will inevitably draw resources from existing educational forms. University teachers are already working overtime for free to meet students’ needs and it is therefore unreasonable to further increase their workload.

The ESG (European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area) defines quality as the result of the interaction between teachers, students and the learning environment. In MOOCs, the interaction between teachers and students is non-existent or very limited and consequently MOOCs cannot be quality assured, nor guarantee the same quality as normal higher education. For those who attend the courses, and for employers, there is a risk that this will lead to confusion about the relative value of the courses. By extension, there is a risk that universities will be forced to commit considerable resources in order to validate or accredit qualifications from MOOCs, which can be costly in terms of both human and financial resources. SULF does not consider that normal government grant funding should be used to organise MOOCs because this could, both directly and indirectly, further exacerbate the erosion of resources for education.

SULF consequently rejects the proposal to make MOOCs a special form of education.

Higher Education Authority proposal: constitutional change and new ordinance

According to this proposal, state universities and university colleges should be given expressed statutory support for the organisation of massive open online education in the form of courses (MOOCs). Constitutional support should also include the ability to issue course certificates and organise examinations.

SULF view

In practice it has been found that there is great danger that teachers lose control of the material they produce for MOOCs. This applies both in Sweden and internationally. SULF would strongly emphasise that teachers’ copyright is a quality issue. Teachers must have full academic freedom in both their production of material and when it comes to the copyright of material produced. From a quality point of view it is essential that teachers have the opportunity to withdraw online material or lectures if they believe that the material is no longer valid.

SULF rejects the idea of constitutional support and a new ordinance, because SULF does not consider that government grant funding should be used for another form of education in the form of MOOCs. SULF cannot see how teachers’ intellectual property rights can be guaranteed in this proposal.

Higher Education Authority proposal: financing

This proposal suggests that universities should finance the costs of open online courses via their government grant budget from undergraduate and graduate level education grants and research and postgraduate education grants.

As a framework for the scope of this form of education, the Higher Education Authority believes that it is reasonable to apply a ceiling to government grant funding of open online courses. Based on the universities’ data, the Higher Education Authority estimates the cost of arranging just a few MOOCs at MSEK 3. Taking this into consideration, the Higher Education Authority suggests a ceiling for grant financing of up to 0.2% of each specific sector grant.

In order that all state universities and some private ones should have the opportunity to develop open online courses, the government will allocate MSEK 60 in special funds. These funds should also be used to develop digital pedagogics and be distributed according to the decision of the appropriate authority.

Furthermore, the government will give the universities the authority to be able to charge for course certificates issued for open online courses and use these funds as they see fit. The universities would also be allowed to decide on the level of these fees.

SULF view

For the reasons stated above, SULF rejects the proposal that normal government grants be used to develop a new form of education in the form of MOOCs. The SULF Congress has also taken a principle decision that all higher education is to be free for all students. This also applies to participants in MOOCs, even if they are not registered as students, and there is also the issue of the certificate. Levying such charges is merely one step closer to charging fees for higher education. Publicly-funded education is a sector that involves all of society. It must therefore be free of charge.

One complicating factor is that charges for course certificates for courses at Swedish universities are already levied through the use of international commercial platforms. SULF does not consider that there is sufficient argument to permit charging fees for a course certificate. Regardless of whether they are called administrative or tuition fees, they are still fees.

SULF rejects the proposal that universities are to finance MOOCs from their basic government grant funding.

SULF strongly opposes the Higher Education Authority proposal that universities should be able to charge fees for course certificates.

Gender equality impact analysis

There has been debate on whether opportunities for more people to participate in higher education in different phases of their lives through MOOCs may have positive consequences for gender equality. At global level, MOOCs’ abilities to strengthen women’s access to education have been discussed. According to an article in New Scientist, however, 56% of participants in MOOCs are men and, in developing countries, 62% are male. The difference between male and female participation is higher in MOOCs than in other higher education, and in BRICS countries the difference is as much as three times higher.

SULF cannot see any direct links to gender equality at the Swedish level but if the proposals are introduced, it is important that the Higher Education Authority follows up the issue of gender equality in Swedish MOOCs after a period of a few years.

For the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers.


Mats Ericson                                              Karin Åmossa

Chair                                                          Senior Researcher


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