Swedish and UK registrars go to Newcastle – a meeting of minds

I was privileged recently to attend the 2019 UK-Swedish Registrars’ conference, hosted by Newcastle University. I’ve commented here before on some of the issues arising from a previous conference where I learned a lot about the different approaches to student engagement in Sweden.

This distinctive international event has quite a long history, starting in 1984 and then continuing with annual gatherings before it shifted to biennial meetings. The idea for the conference emerged from Sweden UK links initiated by the Swedish HE Agency in the early 1980s and successive generations of Registrars have found it so useful it has continued successfully for 35 years.

What’s on the agenda

The core topics covered over the years have remained broadly consistent: the HE systems in the round, leadership and management, quality assurance, resource issues, change, planning, efficiency and effectiveness as well as regular updates on the similarities and differences between systems. In discussions about the big strategy issues we have always found that the two higher education systems continue to have a great deal in common, albeit with some variations. It is also worth noting that all of the discussions take place in English, and I and other UK participants are always in awe at the language skills of Swedish colleagues and their ability to engage fully in high level dialogue in a second language. All of this is covered in a recent history of the series of conferences “Meeting of Minds” which is, sadly, not available online.

All the big issues

John Hogan of Newcastle University and Staffan Sarback of Luleå University of Technology (Sweden’s northernmost university), who lead the planning for each event, co-chaired the conference and put together a programme covering a good range of topics:

  • HE sector updates – Sweden, Scotland and the rest of UK (taking account of the significant national divergences within the UK’s HE system)
  • Brexit
  • Internationalisation after Brexit
  • Research infrastructure and regional policy
  • Collegiality and managerialism
  • Leadership – developing our future selves

Hearing about the recent developments in Sweden it is fair to say the system there seems much more stable than in the UK. They have a reasonably secure funding base (and if the UK Treasury thinks our universities are “awash with cash” they may wish to undertake a fact finding tour in Sweden where there certainly is plenty to go round) and international student numbers are really picking up again now after a major fee-induced dip.

Talking politics

Political changes in Sweden seem not to have affected HE and universities are not prominent in public discourse – they certainly feel it is not unhelpful to stay below the radar and are quite happy to avoid significant public criticism. Interestingly, the current universities minister in Sweden has not got any HE background and not even a first degree, a fact which no-one in the Swedish team seemed to regard as too problematic. It’s worth remembering that Alan Johnson became an effective Minister of HE in the UK despite having left school at 15 (and the impact of all of those PPE graduates in the corridors of power has perhaps not been wholly beneficial for our sector).

Meanwhile politics in the UK could not be much more challenging. With the big developments around Brexit we didn’t really know where things were going two years ago at the last conference but matters if anything are even less clear now, just more all-consuming. Demonstrating the fast-moving nature of the political situation, our extended session on Brexit was interrupted by the news of Jo Johnson’s resignation as universities minister, prompting much further speculation about what was going to happen next.

Here are the delegates, meeting with a notable Newcastle University Honorary Graduate.

Other business

On international issues the countries have slightly different approach to internationalisation but many of the issues are the same with all stressing the importance and value of international partnerships.

Climate change considerations are having a major impact on strategy and operations in all institutions. In Sweden the scale of university travel has been addressed and internal flights have significantly reduced with generally much smaller parties travelling and more questioning about if it is really necessary to travel.

We shared information on the new research landscape in the UK, nationally but also regionally, including LEPS, combined authorities, the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine but also wider issues around regional university collaboration and the development of the Civic Universities agenda.

Regional university and partner collaborations don’t operate in the same way in Sweden although universities do work closely with stakeholders. The government in Sweden is still keen to maintain a spread of universities across the country and therefore remains very reluctant to allow even minor rationalisations. This can cause significant operational challenges such as those experienced by the Swedish Agricultural University which, in addition to its three main campuses, has 32 other sites scattered over an area around the size of England – a plan to close one tiny outpost was recently prevented following political intervention.

So much in common

The U21 ranking of national higher education systems has seen the UK and Sweden closely aligned in 3rd and 4th places over the past two years. Research productivity and funding seem to be at the core of this although it is interesting that two quite different higher education systems, one highly competitive and diverse the other more stable and with more government involvement nevertheless produce similar system results.

I’ve now been to several of the UK-Swedish Registrars’ events and found all of them to be extremely valuable. The opportunity to share information, ideas, perspectives and challenges (mainly but not exclusively Brexit-related) has been invaluable. The cornerstone social activity of the conference has long been built around a singing contest between the national teams. It rarely ends well for the UK grouping and this year was no exception.

The similarities and differences provide really fertile ground for the most productive of dialogues and debates and the engagement with colleagues from Sweden is just genuinely wonderful. Here’s to more meetings of minds in future years.

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