Swedish scholars need international support amid systematic violations of academic freedom

Swedish academics need support from the international community at a time when their academic rights and social function are being questioned in their home country. Therefore, Academic Rights Watch, a Swedish watchdog, now launches an international site with a selection of cases where academics have had their rights violated. The first posting addresses the case of Senior Lecturer Johan Lundberg at Stockholm University, who was denied promotion to full professor after his criticism of identity politics and postmodernism.

Collegial decision-making is being rapidly dismantled and replaced by managers and line-of-command type governance. Freedom of speech has a weak position, freedom of information is threatened, and researchers’ right to choose their own research problems is questioned. The government maintains a strong political grip on all state institutions of higher education, leading to a poor level of institutional autonomy where Vice Chancellors are politically rather than academically appointed. Basically, all aspects of academic freedom are now at risk.

Unsurprisingly, surveys place Sweden in Europe’s bottom layer in terms of legal protection for academic freedom. An extensive recent study by British education specialist Professor Terence Karran (2017) put Sweden, alongside Hungary but also Denmark and the UK, far behind most other European countries. A study by the European University Association reached a similar conclusion.

The root causes are excessive political control, where universities are viewed as instruments for achieving economical and ideological goals, and the implementation of a radical managerial control system—New Public Management—in which there is little or no room for academic rights and professionalism. Also, meritocratic hiring of academic personnel is the exception rather than the rule, which has led to inbreeding and further cemented a politicized educational system strongly influenced by left-wing ideology.

Academic Rights Watch (ARW), an independent and politically neutral Swedish watchdog, has documented violations of academic freedom on its Swedish site since 2012, highlighting the university leaders behind the infringements according to the principle “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. Our complaints to various ombudsmen and auditing authorities have in some cases led to criticism of universities and the persons responsible. In a case involving violation of freedom of speech, a complaint to the Chancellor of Justice, a governmental ombudsman, led to conviction after criminal prosecution, although the ruling was overturned by a higher court. Universities have reacted to our criticism e.g. by publishing previously forbidden student papers, by correcting repressive communication documents and by retracting unlawful postings of academic positions.

ARW has also contributed to informing the general public about academic violations through opinion pieces in Swedish media and our Youtube channel.

As an effect, the problems we and others have highlighted are now publicly discussed in a more lively and informed fashion. The activities have put pressure on academic unions, which are now more seriously engaged in defending the conditions of the academic profession rather than, as was long the case, focusing only on wallet issues.

So far, however, the necessary political correction of the grave system failures in Swedish higher education has been lacking. Academic freedom in Sweden still has an embarrassingly weak position in a European perspective. Sweden is very far from living up to its international commitments, e.g. in relation to UNESCO Recommendations Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel (1997). There are few concrete indications that the situation is changing for the better. This is unfortunate since Sweden’s future and democratic development depends largely on how well we protect and nourish the acclaimed Swedish research and educational tradition.

Therefore, ARW now launches an international site that addresses a selection of case studies in English.

“With the international site, we want, above all, to put international pressure on universities as well as politicians and governments, regardless of political colour, to correct the effects of decades of harmful policy decisions. At the same time, many academics and other stakeholders abroad have expressed their interest in reading our postings in English,” says Magnus Zetterholm at ARW.

‘‘Swedish academics need support from the outside world at a time when their fundamental rights and social function in a flourishing democracy are challenged by decision makers,’’ says Zetterholm.

Associate Professor Magnus Zetterholm co-founded ARW with Professor Erik J. Olsson, both at Lund University, in 2012. Apart from Lund, ARW has representatives at the universities of Gothenburg, Umeå and Uppsala.

The first posting on the international site concerns the case of Associate Professor Johan Lundberg, who after criticizing Swedish identity politics was denied promotion to Professor at Stockholm University. Lundberg had also been publicly critical of postmodernist theories popular at Swedish institutions referring to their advocates as the “enemies of light”. Lundberg’s application was rejected despite the fact that external referees unanimously recommended promotion.

‘‘The case with Lundberg is important because it highlights the poor de facto freedom of expression at our institutions of higher education regarding politically sensitive subjects such as multiculturalism and immigration. The case is a natural starting point when we turn to an international academic audience,’’ says Erik J. Olsson.

At the same time, Olsson wants to keep expectations at a realistic level: ‘‘We have no exaggerated hopes that we alone will have a decisive influence. Rather, everyone who really cares about Sweden and its university system must mobilize their forces so that we can jointly achieve the changes that a sustainable academia and democracy requires,’’ says Erik J. Olsson at Academic Rights Watch.