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.
In order to highlight different, and possibly even contradictory, views on what a university and a university college is, all vice chancellors in Sweden were interviewed. A total of 35 vice chancellors answered our questions on this topic: ‘What characterises a university (university college)’? and ‘What makes it a university (university college)’? All of the interviews were conducted by telephone, recorded and fully transcribed. The analyses of the transcribed interviews were done by qualitative ideology analysis (Bergström & Boréus, 2005) that focused the content and significance of the vice-chancellors’ views on what characterises a university/university college and sought to identify similarities and variations. The universities and university colleges were classified into four categories, including old established, relatively new, regional and aesthetic/musical, in order to investigate possible links between the vice chancellors’ views and type of university. The results will be discussed in relation to the historically dominating forms of what a university is and the current debate on what it should be (e.g., Englund et al 2008, Shattock 2014, Rider et al. 2013, Rider, Hasselberg Waluszewski 2013).
The preliminary results indicate four themes by which a university can be characterised. The first theme was based on the so-called knowledge economy with its base in assignments from private companies and the public sector. The focus is on utility. The theme was only represented by a few vice chancellors. In the second theme, rectors from universities and university colleges highlighted their educational mission from the long- and short-term perspective to ensure the general and advanced education and competences. The theme was expressed by vice chancellors from a specialised institution and a younger university. In the third theme, several vice chancellors emphasised that the hallmark of a university is independently commissioned to critically examine and investigate in combination with contributions to innovation and, thus, to society. Some of the rectors from the university and university colleges expressed this view. Vice chancellors representing university colleges often related to their regional mission at the same time as they underlined the university’s more academic standalone tasks. University representatives emphasised the importance of its independent role, combined with the benefits universities can contribute regarding economic and social development. Unlike university colleges, they emphasised the importance of being a world-class university that understands, explains, and improves our world. In the last theme, some of the vice chancellors emphasised the universities’ responsibility for conducting independent research and education, a multi-century-old mission. Representatives of this view were found among some of the rectors from the universities and the aesthetic institutions. One of them put it this way: It would be good if the state didn’t put any obstacles in the way of teaching people to think for themselves. In sum, the pluralism of beliefs regarding the ideals of what a university is, which history and the present have created, are also expressed as realities of the contemporary Swedish University vice chancellors.