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Consultation response: Research quality evaluation in Sweden – FOKUS

Consultation response

SULF firmly rejects the proposal to implement FOKUS and to continue the redistribution of basic grant funding based on various types of university evaluation.

Ministry of Education

Reg. No. U2014/07505/F

7 Jan 2016


Consultative referral on the report “Research quality evaluation in Sweden – FOKUS”, a model for resource allocation to universities and university colleges, including expert review of research quality and relevance.

The Swedish Association of University Teachers (SULF), through referral dated 8 Oct 2015, has been given the opportunity to comment on the above report

SULF Position
SULF firmly rejects the proposal to implement FOKUS and to continue to redistribute basic government grant funds based on different types of university evaluation.

The Swedish Research Council (VR) was tasked by the previous government to explore a model for resource allocation to universities including expert review of research quality and relevance. SULF is critical of this concept for the reasons set out below. Because the union believes that FOKUS should not be implemented, our arguments are limited to the level of principle and we have refrained from commenting on the details of the proposal.

SULF general observations on FOKUS
SULF believes that university basic government grants must constitute the long-term foundation of their operations and not be exposed to competition. This applies to the current system which means that 20% of basic government grants are allocated based on quality indicators, external funding, publications and citations. But it also applies to VR’s proposal to allocate 20% of basic government grants according to the proposals in FOKUS.

After discussions over the last few years within the union, we have adopted the position that we completely reject a system linking evaluations with resources. SULF does not believe that Sweden should choose the lesser of two evils, but instead completely protect basic government grants from this type of competition. There is already an internal scientific system of peer review examination at the universities and researchers always compete through their research, but this type of system indicates something other than accepted, self-evident scientific competition. Instead of creating confidence it signals distrust of researchers and universities.

Science is built around peer-reviews. It begins at bachelor level at the latest, with opponents and seminar discussions, and continues throughout all academic research careers. Texts are peer-reviewed before publication. Researchers examine each other in committees, as opponents, as experts for appointments, in the evaluation of education and research and the planning of future research projects. Without these audits science would not work

Research policy development in recent decades seems to have been based on the assumption that these internal reviews are not sufficient to assure the quality of the research conducted at universities. Thirty years ago, the ratio of direct/external research funding was approximately 60/40. Today the situation is almost the reverse. The change was motivated by governments stating that only the best research would be funded, and previewing research would mean large amounts for the very best researchers, rather than spreading resources across the board. In addition, politicians feared that researchers would not voluntarily engage in the most important and most successful research unless research projects were previewed. From an economist’s point of view this is logical, but science is not predictable. The nature of research is such that the importance of certain results is not apparent until several decades later. Now the risk is short-term financing, even for the 6-year follow-ups the periods are too short.

The system based on a large proportion of external research resources has clear implications for the amount of research carried out. For example, professors use about a fifth of their research time on applications. Add to that all the time spent in peer groups to drag through a system of external contributions, namely the assessment of the proposed projects. The Research Council’s evaluation groups amount to 800 people. If we say that the use of five working days per year for the task, that is 4 000 days = 20 working years. If FOKUS is carried out, it will cost another SEK 170 million per evaluation round. Will it improve research so much that the transfer cost is justified? SULF does not think so and instead would like to restate the Prime Minister, in his Statement of Government Policy, who indicated a direction moving away from New Public Management with its associated evaluation hysteria in his statement “Let the professionals be professional.” An evaluation system such as FOKUS goes completely against the grain of increased professionalisation of researchers and university teachers.

Today only 45% of the government R & D budget goes to universities in the form of direct grants, of which 20% is allocated according to quality indicators. When examining universities’ revenue for research and graduate studies it can be seen that around 45% came from direct state funding in 2014. The rest is external funding sought in competition from, for example,  research councils, European or private financiers.

The high proportion of competitive funds have caused consequences far beyond reduced research time. Today’s higher education landscape for research and teaching staff is littered with precarious fixed-term contracts, academics hunting for money for their own salaries with no clear career paths for young scientists. One third of the senior teaching and research staff, a higher proportion of women than men, are employed on fixed-term contracts. At the larger universities there is a clear link between a high proportion of external funding and a high proportion of fixed-term contract jobs and many universities indicate that this is the reason they do not employ staff in permanent positions.

In such a climate, academic freedom for individual researchers suffers as academic freedom requires that employees dare to say what they think without jeopardising their jobs. The working environment suffers because employees in precarious jobs have more problems with poor work environment, stress and lack of confidence in management. Mobility suffers because people are forced to stay near the contacts they already have in order to get teaching hours or be included in research applications. In the end it leads to reduction of performance. Uncertain employment conditions in the academic world bring risk of poorer quality of both education and research.

High quality research and teaching requires highly qualified personnel. It also requires that the most highly qualified women and men want to stay in their jobs. Uncertain employment conditions at the country’s universities pose a risk that the most skilled people will move to better jobs outside academia. SULF believes this is one of the major threats to the quality of Swedish research. The fact that even basic government grants are now exposed to competition merely exacerbates this problem, it does not act as a quality driver. SULF would prefer a research funding system that gives universities the opportunity for long-term planning and stable employment conditions for research and teaching staff. Basic government grants must be allocated using stable distribution models.

SULF does not oppose the evaluation of research as such but feels that this is already happening to a very extensive degree. SULF regards the fact that research is subjected to evaluation which is then used to redistribute resources as extremely problematic and believes that this is a threat to academic freedom. The proposed system of evaluation and reallocation of resources risks, as do current systems, exerting a preservative effect and rewarding research into areas we already know a lot about.

SULF proposal for a new, sustainable research financing system

SULF advocates that new funding be allocated in the form of basic government grants and that very gradual redistribution is carried out so that a larger proportion of R & D funding in the state budget is allocated directly to the universities at the expense of the research councils and other government agencies. The share of basic funding must be increased so that, in the long run, at least 60% of universities’ revenue for research and doctoral studies comes to them in the form of direct state funding. This funding should be distributed in the long term and not be exposed to competition. The increased proportion of basic funding is an important precondition for universities to be able to create attractive career paths for research and teaching staff, where women and men can build  careers on equal terms.

SULF is not alone in this position and the issue is discussed in, among other sources, Mats Benner and Gunnar Öqvists report “Fostering breakthrough research”. There, the authors carry out a comparison between Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark and emphasise the importance of high levels of basic grant funding for research quality. Sweden is less successful than these comparison countries, one important difference being that in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark the universities control most of the research resources, while research in Sweden is increasingly financed by external grants.

The increase in basic government grants will be used to finance universities’ long-term operations and to ensure a close relationship between research and education. A reasonable proportion of time for research is at least 30% for lecturers and at least 50% for professors. Also, teachers need to be given the opportunity to be scientifically active, for example through their own research studies or participation in research projects. If all teachers were given time for research or scientific/artistic activity within the scope of their employment, this would ensure not only stronger research links with education but also stronger education relationships with research. This in turn would contribute to a renewal of research and a better dissemination of new research both in academia and out into the rest of society. University teachers, who have a fixed minimum time allocation for  research, can take greater risks in, and follow ideas that lead further from, already beaten tracks.

As for the distribution of research funds between universities,  SULF advocates a gradual redistribution of research funds so that an increasing proportion of total higher education financing can truly be said to be linked to research. This applies to providing areas with weak research funding, which are often dominated by women, with a larger slice of the pie as well as giving the university colleges that do not have postgraduate studies a gradually increased research budget with the long term aim of making as much education as possible actually linked to research.

An increased share of basic funding, which means that all teachers have the time to do research, may also improve Sweden’s preparedness to use research breakthroughs made in other countries because the skills of teachers to understand research from elsewhere have been improved. Through interaction with the students, research results can then spread to other sectors of society.

Gender equality impact analysis
If FOKUS becomes reality in its entirety, SULF fears that the skew between women and men in academic careers will be magnified. More funds will go to universities that already have strong research, which means more funds to male-dominated areas. This in turn prevents an increase in the number of female professors.

Instead of a performance-based resource allocation system, we need a system that can build quality and promote gender equality. We know that external funding is not distributed equally. Research as an integral part of the job would lead to more women gaining the opportunity to qualify as professors. Gender equality should not just be regarded as a quality developmental factor but as a quality in itself.

Basic grants allocated long term without competitive tendering give universities the opportunity to employ more doctoral graduates, scientifically active teachers in areas where they are scarce, for example the largely female-dominated courses in health care and education. More research in female-dominated areas will ultimately result in more female professors.

We need to build strong research through long-term planning and strategies. The most important quality of the reform of Swedish research would be increased basic government grants, secure employment and open advertisement of positions, which in turn would promote gender equality and improved quality.

For the Swedish Association of University Teachers

Mats Ericson, Chair
Karin Åmossa, Head of Research

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