Start from scratch!? Towards a higher education policy for our era

Mats Benner Sylvia Schwaag Serger

Start from scratch. Towards a higher education policy for our era, english summary 53.8 KB PDF

What is needed to implement higher education policy reforms? In this report, Mats Benner and Sylvia Schwaag-Serger, both professors of research policy at Lund University, analyze Swedish higher education policy from the post-war period and onwards, arguing that what has been required from a historical perspective has been a combination of social mobilization, expertise, institutional adaptation and, not least, profound technological changes.

Are we currently in such an era? The authors believe that this might be the case and present a number of reform proposals designed to adapt Swedish higher education policy to our times.


  • Our review of some fundamental changes in Swedish higher education policy indicates a number of distinct phases in the development of this policy involving different ways of managing, governing and organizing research and higher education.
  • The period from the end of the Second World War to about 1970 was characterized by expanding the universities, upgrading the research funding system and increasing the possible number of students. The main instruments in terms of policy analysis and implementation were a number of key government studies setting the framework for the rapid expansion of research and higher education. Fundamentally, a solid consensus existed across political, social and economic boundaries regarding the value of modernizing research and higher education.
  • A corresponding review and transformation of Swedish higher education policy was carried out in the mid-1970s. As a result of the booming economy that had lasted for a long time between 1945 and 1975 starting to recede, external circumstances became more unstable and more urgent demands were made for social and economic changes. Government studies played a key role in this period as well, in which opinions were formed and institutional alternatives were tested.
  • The transformation that occurred at the beginning of the 1990s continued in stages until the 2010s. The planned and structured Swedish model for research and higher education having guided the two previous periods of higher education policy was abandoned. The emphasis was no longer on central governance and working according to plans but on experimental adaptation. Deregulations did not result in any major institutional changes, and the pluralistic funding system gave rise to a lack of focus instead of diversity and competition.
  • Swedish higher education policy has since 2010 been in a state of what we refer to as expansive stagnation, in which more resources and roles have been added which the system has not been capable of translating into qualitative changes. Several factors have served as obstacles for change, lack of analysis being one of these. A fairly large number of government studies in important areas have been carried out but without any clear impact or implementation. Politicians, in turn , have found it difficult to agree on a coherent direction regarding the link between higher education policy and the major issues of our time.
  • This does not mean that the Swedish higher education system has stagnated – the system has continued to grow and a variety of initiatives have been launched. However, all attempts to perform an overall assessment and create a comprehensive framework with regard to Swedish higher education institutions have failed. This situation of “treading water” is particularly problematic in an era where cutting-edge technologies, a new geopolitical context and an increasingly serious climate crisis are fundamentally transforming our world.


  • Strengthen social mobilization and the role of expertise in research and higher education. This may improve the conditions in terms of common goals and efforts across different interests. As proposed in the debate, a so-called higher education observatory could be an alternative.
  • Change the ways in which resources are allocated and goals are formulated. Small measures can ‘nudge’ an entire sector. There are several good international examples, including the German Excellence Initiative, which has resulted in a clear orientation toward international visibility and ambition by means of creating distinct university profiles.
  • Create a new long-term framework. It has been almost 30 years since the key principles for developing the higher education system were established. Since then, various reform initiatives have been stacked on top of each other, without coordination. There is a need for a comprehensive study of higher education policy which examines the conditions in all areas of the higher education system.
  • Other aspects that we also want to see more of include multidisciplinary centers, institutes or think tanks, knowledge reviews regarding complex social issues written for decision-makers, funding for cutting-edge research and new approaches in higher education.


Mats Benner, professor of research policy at Lund University.

Sylvia Schwaag Serger, professor of research policy at Lund University.