On academic freedom, research at work and the role of the administration
Interview with Vice-chancellor Jan-Ingvar Jönsson
1. What are the threats to academic freedom at LiU with regard to quality in teaching and student-centred learning? Especially in light of the content of the Magna Charta Universitatum.
2. What is your view on the lack of time available for research for senior lecturers, (as well as docents and promoted professors), and lecturers, particularly the consequences for the individual and in the context of LiU's system for allocating research funding?
3. What is your view on the balance at LiU between the number of administrative tasks and the proportion of administrative staff on the one hand, and research and first cycle courses and programmes on the other?
These thematic questions were shared with the vice-chancellor before the meeting and provided the framework of the discussion, which was led by Tove Mattsson and Jan Kellgren from the local SULF association at LiU. Below is an edited excerpt of the conversation that took place. The text ends with some comments from SULF LiU. As agreed beforehand, the vice-chancellor was given the opportunity to edit the text before it was shared.
Tove: What is academic freedom? What does it mean, especially with regard to teaching and student-centred learning? What are the threats to academic freedom?
Jan-Ingvar: To be honest, I don't think there are any major threats. I think there are all the opportunities in the world for our researchers and teachers. This is of course linked to having good conditions, and that is also the idea behind our new strategy. It is no coincidence that the vision is called "With the courage to think freely and to do something new"; to create the conditions to be able to test your ideas, your thoughts, and put them into practice. To have the opportunity to do so in a context and in a creative environment. The new resource allocation model for research funding focuses on building and supporting entire academic environments, where research and education are not separate, but interrelated. If you are a senior lecturer or lecturer and currently do not have room for research in your role, you may still be able to participate in research projects by being in a creative environment where there are meetings and discussions about the research being conducted. Of course, there are differences between different fields, I realise that, but I think that one key in the future is to know your context and that you will develop as an employee, a teacher or a researcher by being part of an environment where there is a critical mass of people with whom you can discuss. Looking back on my own career, I think such opportunities are more difficult to find these days.
Tove: Do you mean opportunities to participate in such contexts?
Jan-Ingvar: Yes, exactly. When I was young, I studied and worked in Lund, and when I was about to start my doctorate, I had the opportunity to attend a Max Planck institute in Germany. It was a fantastic privilege. We often talked about research and exciting new developments, in immunology in my case. Admittedly I had very little teaching, and that certainly played a role in my having time to conduct research and room for open academic discussions. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doctoral candidates participating in teaching. On the contrary, you can develop your role as a teacher and participate in our programmes. But it is not ideal if teaching assignments are so great that they take away too much time and focus from research.
Tove: The question of academic freedom comes rather from the fact that many people highlight the difficulty of balancing student groups who may be dissatisfied with the requirement of high throughput.
Jan-Ingvar: I have heard from some departments that there is concern among some teachers that they are being questioned more and more and feel exposed, and there are certainly different challenges posed by things like new student groups and the new way of conducting digital education. And by that I don't mean distance education. It is still important that students and teachers meet, but digitalisation may become more focused on the students. The classic role of the teacher may not exist in the same way in the future. I think that there will be a lot of recordings that you watch, and then you will meet the teacher individually or in large groups, and that will require a different approach to thinking about education.
Tove: Do you miss teaching?
Jan-Ingvar: Yes, very much. I enjoy teaching, and I'm also a very interactive teacher who often asks questions and writes and draws on the board. But I was given more and more large assignments, and that caused some schedule confusion due to other meetings, so I decided to take a step back. I feel that we sometimes make teaching dependent on a single teacher, that we ask individuals to take on teaching assignments instead of ordering them from teaching teams or environments that are accomplished in the field, and where people have complementary skills and can use colleagues as sounding boards.
Tove: How do you build that? You need someone to be in charge and you need a structure.
Jan-Ingvar: Of course, the heads of department have the formal responsibility for the staff, but I think you have to think a little about future solutions. Who should provide support and in what form? What functions should we have? To some extent it is a bit of new experience, but we probably need better support functions for teachers who feel vulnerable so that everything does not end up on the desk of the head of department.
Tove: One aspect that comes up among members' questions is the overall requirement or desire for high throughput. If I fail a student, it means more work for me, as I then have to devote more time to that student. The members who have responded feel strongly that there is a dilemma: the freedom to do what I want versus the fact that I have to "drag students through".
Jan-Ingvar: It is clear that there are both financial and workload considerations, but we must not sacrifice high quality. That is also something that I hear from the people with overall responsibility for education matters. I also believe that the heavy workloads of many teachers must be seen in relation to how we could make teaching more efficient. Before I came to LiU in 2003, I was Director of Studies in Lund. There I was responsible for a completely new biomedical programme, and at LiU there was a corresponding programme in medical biology. I discovered that here in Linköping they had the same number of students and very ambitious goals for various elements of the programme and examinations, but that they only had a third of the number of teachers as in Lund. It was of course a good programme, but it was also very resource-intensive and challenging for the teachers. There is a clear danger with such lofty ambitions that you will also wear out your staff in the long run, and then there are really only two options: either hire more teachers or find more efficient processes.
Jan: What do you think about the scope for greater efficiency?
Jan-Ingvar: It is a complex question, but digitalisation brings great opportunities. You can also think about what forms of examination we should have; how labour-intensive do we want them to be? Several programmes require many hours and weeks to be spent just on examinations. Then we have to think about which programmes and courses we will offer in the future, while also discussing how efficient they are. What do they cost? How many applicants will there be? What is the throughput rate? What strategy we should have for our various programmes in the future is an extremely important question.
Tove: Let us move on to our second theme.
Jan: We can see that it falls into two parts, you could say. One is the teachers who do not receive faculty funding. And then we're talking about improving efficiency, right?
Jan-Ingvar: Yes, I think so.
Jan: Yes, and the second is when the teacher has faculty funding, the importance of which is so easy to exaggerate, but where you still have access to some money. If we start with the first group: how should a teacher, perhaps one with a doctorate, who does not foresee receiving external or internal research funding, go about “life management” in the next few years?
Jan-Ingvar: I trust that academic environments are formed in the departments and units, where there is a critical mass of colleagues who conduct research. There, employed teachers can find their context and be involved in various research projects by sharing their knowledge and experiences.
Tove: But it doesn't look like that for everyone.
Jan-Ingvar: That is why an important part of the resource allocation model is to support such environments as an important part of the new strategy. We have a great breadth in our organisation, and we must of course be careful not to become too similar in how we work. I think that there are many senior lecturers who often work alone and who take on a lot of responsibility, not only teaching assignments but also outside the classroom, for example as directors of studies. I think it is important for the entire university that we can utilise all these passionate people, but that opportunities are provided for them to function in a larger context.
Jan: Subject mates?
Jan-Ingvar: Being part of an environment where there is constantly something exciting happening, where colleagues are bringing in research funding, new projects are being set up and you can pool your individual skills. That is enriching for everyone. When I talk about strong research environments and use the term "excellence", I mean that it should be a goal for everyone to strive for. It should be a driving force that everything we do is of high quality, and then I hope that we can create opportunities for as many people as possible to contribute by being part of a creative environment. To some extent, the new resource allocation model rewards good previous performance retroactively, that is true. But we must try to create incentives for what is new, for what is in the pipeline and may become very successful in the future.
Jan: Could it also be the case that we should have greater distribution between universities and help each other?
Jan-Ingvar: We probably have to make agreements with other universities to a greater extent and find areas where we can collaborate.
Jan: Regarding the internal allocation of research funding, many people have the impression that a lot of money goes to certain places and strong research environments, and then the lecturer in Astrid Lindgren's childhood biography is forgotten about. What is the thought process regarding this in the short and long term?
Jan-Ingvar: That is a very difficult question, and there are no easy answers. One thing that I think is important is to use parts of the basic grant to provide skills development for our teachers. And then we have to find efficiency instruments in education where there may be scope to find space and time to develop within one's field of research. If that then means that you really have time to do hands on research and in the long run attract external funding - that is highly doubtful. But I absolutely understand the need. That's why you go into higher education, to be able to conduct education and research in parallel.
Tove: However, different amounts of money go into different areas.
Jan-Ingvar: Funding levels and price tags are of course important, and that is something that we bring up a lot in our formal dialogue with the Ministry of Education. Unfortunately, although there is some understanding of the problem, it does not result in any change.
Jan: And pure research grants?
Jan-Ingvar: Unfortunately, we suffer from the fact that we have a disproportionately lower basic grant for research than some other higher education institutions, and that is a worry. The Ministry of Education also tells us that we are sitting on a large amount of capital, which is very problematic because it reduces our scope to receive favourable responses to our requests for an increased basic grant. Right now, for example, we are bleeding a lot when it comes to infrastructure.
Jan: What do you mean when you say that the infrastructure is bleeding?
Jan-Ingvar: We have infrastructure at LiU that runs at a deficit, not just expensive equipment and advanced laboratories, but also soft infrastructure, by which I mean staff who can maintain and support the core activities of the university. I hope to return to this subject in autumn 2022 and put forward a proposal for a university-wide organisational and funding model for the infrastructure. This is my strongest argument for why we must be given an increased basic grant.
Jan: Whereas a senior lecturer's research gets maybe 10% in research time.
Jan-Ingvar: I know. That is unfortunate and we must continue to discuss it. An important question is what they do at other higher education institutions.
Tove: What would you say to those who feel that they are not making any progress in their careers because they have too little time for research?
Jan-Ingvar: There are probably different aspects to it and it varies between different research fields, but I hope that people feel in spite of everything that they are constantly developing as teachers and researchers at LiU. But I can't promise that everyone will have time for research. The resource allocation model makes it possible for the faculties to use the grant for strategic investments up to a certain level, and I can imagine that in any case they look at what it would cost. In an ideal world, a senior lecturer would have time to do research, but given the financial situation we have today, there are no good solutions.
Jan: A little off topic, but what is it important that the university delivers? Is it a lot of citations or is it the teaching?
Jan-Ingvar: I'm not going to say excellent research or cool educational programmes. What we need to invest in is people. We should be an open university for life. You should want to come to Linköping University regardless of where you are on your career path or if you are a student, or for lifelong learning. And that we as a university and academia find our place in the development of society, become a meeting place for many people. A place where you know you come to acquire knowledge, learning. When you apply to teach at our university, you should feel that you will be able to develop and it will not be a dead end. This is also something that needs to chime with the types of career path we offer.
Tove: One thing that came up among the questions was how people can have career paths that are connected to teaching.
Jan-Ingvar: We have an ongoing assignment called Equality, Career Paths and Qualifications. I hope this will provide suggestions on how we can move forward. The university administration has been pursuing these issues for a long time, and the departments have been involved, but there is still a lot to do and I think the ownership should lie with the core functions. Even though no decisions have yet been made, I think we need to review our appointments procedure and there must be an open dialogue about this. What kind of positions and career paths should we have? And how should we safeguard the pedagogical experience and the pedagogical portfolio?
With regard to the qualification system, the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions has appointed a working group to develop a framework for Sweden's new qualification system as an agreement between financiers and the higher education sector. I am a member of that working group, and one important issue that we are discussing right now, together with research funders, is what qualifications and merits should be assessed, or shouldn’t it be overall competence? And how should we judge "success", what is best? An article in an international journal with great impact but which is perhaps not cited very many times, or an article published in a journal with a significantly lower impact factor but which leads to the introduction of new clinical methods that benefit a large number of patients? Who has delivered the best result? These are not easy questions, and there is a lot to think about. That is why I accepted this assignment and the opportunity to actually influence the future system.
Tove: Moving on to our third theme, many people point out that overheads are rising and that the administrative burden is increasing, and the paradox of that: that I have to do more myself but there should also be a larger central administration, and that can be counterproductive at times; that it just results in more work.
Jan-Ingvar: I think it is to some extent true that the university administration has developed more towards its role as an authority than as shared operational support to fulfil our three missions of education, research and third stream activities. There are a great many talented employees who support and contribute to the continuous development of the university, but if it is true that the workload has increased despite a growing central administration, then of course that is not good.
Tove: One question that was asked was where we in stand in terms of the relationship between being a state agency and being a university? Are we drifting towards becoming more and more of a state agency?
Jan-Ingvar: The agency role has probably grown compared with perhaps 5-10 years ago, but at the same time a university is a state agency, and a very complex one at that. Whether an activity that supports a certain function is situated locally or centrally is of less importance, I think. The main thing is that operational support is appropriate, efficient and accessible, and that there is an understanding of what it means to implement new systems or processes. I believe that there is good reason to review the administration's working methods and processes in conjunction with the recruitment of a new university director this autumn, with the aim of creating an organisation that has a greater understanding of the university’s core activities, that is able to build trust and that is seen as efficient and competent. To some extent as a continuation of the efficiency review, with which you are probably familiar.
Jan: Yes, that was a few years ago.
Jan-Ingvar: Exactly, but the problem with that is that far too little of it has been implemented and it has not led to any efficiency improvements. There was also too much focus on individual issues and not on overall processes.
Tove: But our survey also clearly shows a desire to also be able to evaluate how the support organisation works for the core functions, because there we see that we teachers are constantly being evaluated and quality controlled, but we are not allowed to evaluate the support functions.
Jan-Ingvar: It is good that you say that, because it is important that we evaluate what we deliver. It is difficult to know how efficient our administration is compared with other universities. Perhaps we should think about how we could measure what our administration offers and whether people working to deliver the core activities of the university are satisfied with it. The university director has been asked to report more clearly on the administration's various priorities and costs in the coming years, and that should be complete this autumn. It is perhaps perfectly okay for a certain department within the administration to be relatively large, as long as it is possible to measure and show that it has been effective.
Tove: What effect should it have? More applicants or more funding?
Jan-Ingvar: Yes, maybe that or international visibility, attractiveness among international students. That people use Linköping University's website to acquire knowledge and read about what is happening. How we can become a university that is not only a hub in our region and attracts students from within and outside of Östergötland, but also how we can become a leading university in terms of thought leadership as well.
On behalf of SULF and our members, we would like to express our thanks for an interesting, thought-provoking and generous interview with Vice-chancellor Jan-Ingvar Jönsson. We think this kind of dialogue has great potential, and it would be good to follow up this interview, for example next year, and to interview more people who have ley roles for our members. Our role as a trade union is to critically evaluate and discuss our members' situations and experiences in the workplace.
SULF LiU's comments on the discussion with the vice-chancellor
Linköping University is one of few Swedish higher education institutions where the local working time agreement for teachers does not guarantee any time for research. Our university also has a significantly lower allocation of basic grants for research than other comparable universities. At the same time, LiU has a noble ambition to be one of the major research-heavy universities and over the years has become very successful at obtaining external funding; funding which often requires significant co-financing, however. All in all, this means that almost all of the basic grants have gone to strong research environments, which means that a large group of doctorate-qualified teachers have very little or absolutely no time for research as part of their normal work. In the interview, the vice-chancellor advocates the introduction of research environments which will receive funding via the faculties and which will involve teachers so that no teacher will feel isolated. According to the vice-chancellor, not all teachers will be able to count on having time for research in their paid working time in the future either. He advocates that teachers, through discussion and interaction with more successful colleagues, should be brought into ongoing research and, ideally, have the opportunity to conduct research themselves.
SULF regrets that the vice-chancellor does not wish to pursue the issue of research as part of a teacher’s working role at LiU. SULF also believes that the idea of inspirational research environments is not equally suitable for all subjects. Perhaps this is an idea that can be applied in large experimental environments, where teachers without access to labs or equipment do not have the opportunity to conduct research. However, it is more difficult to apply when it comes to more theoretical subjects, such as theoretical physics, mathematics, theoretical biology or behavioural science. Teachers who do research in these subjects often collaborate in small groups of researchers who are not infrequently scattered all around the world, not with colleagues in the next room. In our view, this less-visible research has very great value for the university. It not only brings increased small-scale contact between LiU and other universities, but it is also a prerequisite for teachers to be able to master their discipline, follow its development and thus ensure updated and robust subject knowledge when they meet their students. Unfortunately, we see no ambition on the part of the management at LiU to support this type of research. This in spite of the commitments in the Higher Education Act and in the Magna Charta Universitatum and in spite of the difficulties to acquire external funding within more theoretical subjects. We look forward to a continued dialogue with the vice-chancellor regarding this burning issue of research, which concerns all teachers at Linköping University.