Conference proceedings article

The idea of a University in times of quality assurance: the voices of Swedish vice chancellors


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Author list: Olofsson, Anders

Publication year: 2015



The classical debate on the idea of the university goes back to the 19th century, originating in the intellectual and humanistic visions of Cardinal John Henry Newman in England and Wilhelm Von Humboldt in Germany. The history of the modern university, the celebration of triumph of reason over dogma and the notion of academic freedom and self-governance, which is even older, was borne of the 12th century Bologna Charter. During the 20th century, this debate continued and somewhat different idealised models of the university were presented (Wyatt 1990). During the 1960–1970s, intellectuals such as Habermas and Parsons sought to protect principles of the Enlightenment from becoming rigidified in factories of mass-produced technical expertise (Habermas 1987; Parsons & Platt 1973). In the 1990s, similar discussions emerged as new public management and academic capitalism continued to make its entry while turning higher education into what some called the “McUniversity in the postmodern consumer society” (Ritzer 1996).

In the wake of more recent transformations of the higher education sector, scholars have returned to this debate (O’Byrne & Bond 2014; Rider, Hasselberg Waluszewski 2013). For example, it has been argued that the increasing external (and internal) monitoring, quality assurance and evaluation, together with the continued embracement of NPM, has managed to further erode intellectual ideals and push aside the free pursuit of knowledge. The need for external quality assurance has been questioned: Is not continuous self-evaluation intrinsic to the very discovery of knowledge—to the idea of a university as such? (Jarvis 2014)

Against this background, the aim of this paper is to investigate the current ideas of a university in Sweden. Overall, the development in higher education in Sweden appears to follow international trends (Segerholm et al. 2014). Swedish higher education has undergone several reforms from 1993 and onwards that have produced governing tensions which reflect moves of simultaneous deregulation/decentralization/self-governing, and re-regulation/centralization including problems of balancing control/accountability and support (Segerholm et al. 2012). In the words of Segerholm et al. (2014: 7), higher education has ‘moved from being an internally managed “ill-defined problem” (evaluated by professionals themselves who needed leeway to define their own practice) to a “well-defined problem” managed and controlled by external (and internal) “expertise” by way of using indicators and standards’. We know what national and local policies say about the role of higher education—the key words—innovation, quality, internationalization, development, competitiveness, etc.—are all familiar. However, the mainstream agenda for universities constructed and maintained in modalities of the knowledge economy have international, as well as national, opponents (Barnett 2011; Gustafsson 2014).

This paper then, more specifically, aims to investigate what responsible key actors have to say on this critical issue. Vice chancellors are such key actors in their capacity as representatives for their universities in the Association of Swedish Higher Education (SUHF). What kind of ideas, conceptions and visions do the vice chancellors express concerning the role of the university today?

The study is part of the project ‘Governing by Evaluation in Higher Education in Sweden’, which evaluates the recent reform of quality evaluations in higher education and examines the ways in which it may be understood as governing education. By way of interviewing rectors regarding their ideas of the university, we examine and make sense of these tensions in order to understand ideas, systems and practices within the transformed higher education sector with a particular focus on implications that are related to quality assurance and evaluation.


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