Sweden is often cited as one of the world’s leading higher education nations.
It invested 3.2 per cent of its GDP in research and development (R&D) in 2014, one of the highest proportions in the world.
It is among the countries with the largest cohort of researchers (1 per cent) relative to its total population.
And while other countries reduced public funding for universities following the 2008 global recession, public higher education funding in Sweden increased by 23 per cent between 2008 and 2014.
But the government’s research bill, published last month, warned that Sweden is “losing innovative capacity while many other countries are increasing theirs”.
Although Swedish research “maintains a good standard…we are losing ground to the strong research countries, and research countries that have been relatively weak up to now are catching us up”, it said.
The Swedish Research Barometer 2016, published by the Swedish Research Council in October, found that Sweden has reduced its spending on R&D in relation to GDP during the past decade, owing to a decline in the business sector’s contribution to research.
Between 2002 and 2004, Sweden and Switzerland shared top spot in the ranking of countries based on the number of publications in relation to their population. Since then, Sweden has dropped to fourth place, behind Switzerland, Denmark and Australia.
Switzerland, Singapore, the US, the Netherlands and the UK have also increased their share of highly cited publications more rapidly than Sweden.
Sven Stafström, director general of the Swedish Research Council, said that while the country’s research system has expanded over the past 10 years, the result has been an increase in the quantity of research rather than an improvement in quality.
The government’s bill aims to address this by incentivising collaboration between universities and industry, encouraging greater private investment in research and creating a more attractive environment for young researchers.
It includes an SEK1.3 billion (£113 million) increase in basic university funding until 2020, which it states is intended to boost quality rather than increase the number of researchers; an additional SEK3 billion rise in research and innovation funding until 2020; and a commitment for half of newly recruited professors to be women by 2030 (up from the current 25 per cent).
Helene Hellmark Knutsson, minister for higher education and research, told Times Higher Education that the government has also scrapped the controversial idea of a new peer-review-based funding model for research, which was proposed by the Swedish Research Council on instruction from the previous government, as it would have “required too much work” and been “too costly” for universities “in relation to the added value it would provide”.
Instead, she said the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) will now evaluate research quality assurance, as well as education, and one-third of the new competitive research funding allocated to universities will be based on their success in collaborating with industry. This funding is currently based only on bibliometrics and external funding.
Next year, the government will also appoint a commission to propose a new system of governance and resource allocation for universities.
But Git Claesson Pipping, general secretary of the Swedish University Teachers and Researchers Association, said the higher increase in funding for research and innovation means that universities will be more reliant on external funding sources.
She is “quite worried” about the effect this will have on blue-skies research, as most grants are evaluated partly on the likelihood of success and the outcome of basic research is “impossible to predict”.
“Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Switzerland all have a better balance” between direct government funding and external funding, she said.
Sigbritt Karlsson, president of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, added that the reliance on external funding means that it is “less easy to steer and manage universities” and “the mandate is decreasing for the rector and faculty”, although she said it is important for Swedish researchers to apply for European Union funding in order to increase the impact of research.
She also welcomed the shift in discourse towards “quality” rather than “excellence”, as seen in previous government documents.
But Ms Hellmark Knutsson insisted that it is “really important” for universities to be able to attract private funding to increase the quality of research.
“We have to be more careful what we get out of the system. We have invested a lot in research, but the quality hasn’t been better and we haven’t had good ways of recruiting top researchers,” she said.
“In the long run this will be a problem for Sweden because other countries, even countries that invest less than we do in government funding for research, get out more, have higher citations, and create more innovation from their research.”