Protecting Institutional Autonomy: Resolution on a shortened time period for HEI Board Members in Sweden

The European Students Union (ESU) is highly critical of the Swedish government's decision to change the appointment process for the higher educational institution's boards. According to ESU, the decision represents a restriction on the autonomy of the higher education institutions and risks threatening academic freedom, which is essential for free research and education.

A free academy, independent courts, free art, and free press are all cornerstones of maintaining democracy and protecting human rights. Neither politicians, interest groups, nor trolls should determine what can be researched or taught at universities and colleges.

It is important that the boards of higher educational institutions consist of representatives from different parts of society to ensure high-quality research and education without being subject to political control or influence. When the Swedish government disregards established practices and procedures for the appointment process, it opens up for more direct political interference in the activities of the higher education institutions. ESU is critical of the Swedish government's choice not to respect the processes of the Swedish educational institutions and their nominating persons on new appointments for board members. Moreover, we are critical of the decision being made with an unusually short timeframe and without student or educational institution consultation.

ESU also urges the Swedish government to carefully consider the consequences of the changes that the decision entails and wants to remind of the criticism that has been expressed by several parts of the higher education sector in Sweden against the latest changes in the appointment process for the educational institution's boards. The changes introduced since the 1990s have reduced the educational institutions' influence over the process. The changes meant that a majority should consist of board members from society and industry. This has, among other things, led to educational institutions being increasingly governed by external interests and therefore decreased independence. It is worrying that the Swedish government is now introducing even more far-reaching changes that restrict the educational institutions' autonomy.

The Swedish government has implemented a shortened period for the board members explained by the current security situation in Europe and the importance of such expertise being included on the boards. SFS is convinced that the challenges that educational institutions face, in this case of security policy, can be best handled by the higher educational institutions without political involvement.

In the long run, state control of higher educational institutions may lead to the universities losing their ability to freely conduct research and education. Furthermore there is a risk that short-term political interests will be prioritized over academic quality and integrity. Therefore, it is important that higher educational institutions have autonomy over their activities so that research and education will be conducted independently.

ESU believes that the academic sector must be free from state control and political interference in order to carry out its mission. It is important that universities and colleges can continue to operate based on academic values ​​and that their activities are carried out at arm's length from politics. Higher education institutions have a unique role in society, and in order to maintain their integrity and credibility, they must have the opportunity to work free from external influence.

The issue of academic freedom and political governance of higher education is a global concern, the international student community stands behind the criticism of the Swedish government in the decision to appoint members and chairmen of university and college boards for a period of 17 months and not the usual 3 year. The decision goes against the current structure and the approach is sharply criticized, among other things due to the absence of anchoring with relevant actors such as academia and student representatives.

The letter is a resolution adopted by the European Students Union at the 84th decision meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia on 7 May 2023.

Emma Svensson, Erik Diaz Milla and Amanda Beckman

This is a republication of the original statement on ESU's website.