The latest issue of SULF-Tidningen (the journal published by the Union of Swedish University Teachers) includes a gloomy report about the situation for the BA and MA programmes in Economics: Luleå University will be making around 15 staff redundant (that is a lot of people for a relatively small unit – see also this press release), Mälardalen University College equally set to make around 15 staff redundant while Gävle University College manages with 6-7 redundancies.
The redundancies are the result of two factors: First, the number of people entering higher education have started to decline after a relatively long period of growth and with the strict performance-based system of financing which is applied in Sweden, a falling number of students affects departments’ economy immediately.
Second, according to the journal, some of the departments affected by the decline have had internal problems controlling their finances. This could imply that insufficient or bad management was part of the problem.
A general comment about this could be that departments in the Humanities from all over Sweden for a long time have reported economic problems forcing cuts in disciplines and even the closing of some subjects at major universities and colleges.
Science departments have also noted severe problems at many universities, putting alternating governments’ ambitious programmes for promoting science education into question.
That subjects and departments, at least in the eyes of the government, have over-expanded is nothing new. The redundancies in Luleå, Mälardalen and Gävle are a sign that the social sciences are now also affected by the decline. Only the medical schools, veterinary schools, law and some other disciplines seem to have escaped the rot.
In the short term, the declining number of students will force universities and colleges to reduce the number of lessons for students and the number of courses being offered as staff are being made redundant. In the medium term, it is even likely that traditional subjects will be abandoned by major universities – Lund has already had to drop Latin and Greek. Classical languages may be considered trophy disciplines rather than central subjects, but this is a sign of a crisis with regard to the status of higher education.
In the medium-to-long term, the decline could have some serious implications for Swedish higher education. Under the Swedish system where redundancies are decided according to seniority, a younger generation of researchers and teachers are in danger of losing their jobs and – at best – being relegated to short-term projects. And in this context “young” means 35-50 years. They could face a hard time on the labour market where academic qualifications have a questionable value while the youngest generation will find a career in research an impossible dream.
Before long, many departments could be populated by a core of people over 50 with a supplement of ever-hopeful Ph.D.-students. The debacle will come in 10-15 years’ time when the baby boomers have left the labour market and parts of higher education and research effectively will have to be rebuilt because the middle generation has left – or been forced to leave – academia.
Turning the tables and ridding universities of everybody over 50 is not a solution, either. Finding a job when you’re over 50 is hard. Getting an highly specialised academic over 50 into new career is about as easy as putting a man on Mars. It would just shift financial responsibility from the Department of Education to the Department of Labour.
All of this is below the radar. The political system has not recognised and does not recognise the situation as a problem. After all, the point about introducing performance-based financing of education and research was to remove questions about long-term priorities from the political agenda.
All is not doom and gloom, though: While universities are making teachers redundant and consider closing subjects, the state-owned company Akademiska Hus – which in the New Public Management system applied zealously in all Swedish higher education and research is the monopolist landlord for universities and colleges – reported a net gain of more than 4 billion Swedish kroner – approximately 450 million €.
The Finance Minister can be happy.