Astrid Söderbergh Widding, President. Photo: Sören Andersson

A couple of weeks ago, The Swedish Higher Education Authority, UKÄ, published its report Academic Freedom in Sweden. It presents, among other things, four case studies as well as the results of a survey and a round of consultations with higher education institutions. The results are not unequivocal. It concludes that academic freedom in Sweden is generally good, but that there are challenges – not least in an international perspective. According to the report, every other teacher, researcher and doctoral student today sees academic freedom at Swedish higher education institutions as challenged, partly by political influence and research funding, partly by homogeneity and alignment, on the research side mainly through informal networks. On the education side, pressure from students to remove or add content to their courses dominates. UKÄ notes that there is a lack of consensus on whether or not these different aspects challenge academic freedom. The lack of consensus is evident not least in the wide range of reactions to the report: from the fact that this was far worse than feared, or that a masculine and a feminine approach are opposed to each other, to the fact that it is politics, rather than the so-called cancel culture, that originally lay behind the assignment to UKÄ, which constitutes the real threat to academic freedom. The report is worth reading not least for the four case studies.

The concept of academic freedom is also highlighted by the protesters who have set up tent camps on several university campuses in Sweden in line with the ongoing international protests, including the demand that all cooperation agreements with Israeli universities be cancelled. Of course, the terrible destruction in Gaza also includes the universities there, and The Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions, SUHF, emphasizes in its statement, in addition to the importance of freedom of expression and academic freedom, the hope of being able to contribute to their reconstruction in the future. In the current climate of debate, however, the concept of academic freedom is most at risk of becoming a bat for diametrically opposed views; the protesters see the universities’ stance as the opposite of academic freedom, while the universities, by not cancelling the cooperations, consider themselves to be protecting it.

At the same time, many staff members have expressed their concerns. On the one hand, several support the protesters and are concerned about the cooperation with Israeli universities. On the other hand, others are concerned about disruptions, demands for statements, anti-Semitic tendencies and general security aspects. Regarding the latter, there is an active ongoing dialogue with property owners as well as security companies and police who are monitoring developments to protect both peaceful protesters and the safety and security of all students and staff on campus. I have previously blogged about the public stance taken by the university on this issue. But what concerns me about this is that the debate seems to be becoming increasingly black and white and polarised, with little room for dialogue or nuance. To quote the conclusion of the UKÄ report: “It is fundamental to the activities of higher education institutions – both education and research – to have an open and free dialogue in which researchers, teachers, doctoral students and students respond to each other’s arguments on the merits”. If there is one thing I hope for in the future, it is more of such a “constructive and objective discussion”.

This text is written by President Astrid Söderbergh Widding. It appears in the section “Words from the Management”, in which members of the university’s management team take turns to write about topical issues. The section appears in News for staff which is distributed to the entirety of the University staff.