Sweden was shaken to the core at the revelations of the country’s poor Pisa results (see Nordstjernan's story here: Sweden gets education advice..., but who knew quality is also an issue at Swedish centers for higher learning? International rankings show that both Uppsala and Lund universities have fallen off the list of the world’s top 100 universities. And analyses conducted on how much attention Swedish research receives abroad are also cause for concern. Reports from Vetenskapsrådet (the Swedish Research Council) and Kungliga vetenskapsakademin (the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) point to serious problems concerning the universities’ ability to support new and groundbreaking research. Ominious signs like these may lead to Swedish research becoming Sweden’s next ”Pisa failure.”
In an article in Dagens Nyheter, professors Mats Alvesson and Bo Rothstein shed light on the failure, by dividing it into three sections.

Academic leadership
The first concerns the academic leadership, which according to Alvesson and Rothstein differs in Sweden when compared to other countries. Prominent institutions have in common their ability to get eminent scientists to assume sole leadership assignments; in Sweden that is not the case. In Sweden, university leadership is taken care of by weak, undistinguished academics. Scientists who themselves have never been near top international research would hardly know how to get others there, argue Alvesson and Rothstein. These scientists can also not discern who among the young researchers have the ability to compete internationally.


'Intellectual inbreeding'
The second problem, which is related to the first, is the rampant intellectual inbreeding at Swedish universities. This problem has been in focus for some time, and not long ago Lund and Uppsala universities were compared with two excellent American universities. One difference was that while only about 10 percent of the professors at the American universities were internal products of these universities, the equivalent number for Swedish universities was as high as 90 percent. International evaluators criticize Swedish inbreeding and said they’re ”appalled” and ”horrified” by it, and such a system would be ”unthinkable” in other countries. This system, according to the two professors, creates repetitive instead of creative research since the best strategy for young researchers will be to adapt to already ingrained thinking at the mother institution. Also, reliance on an internal career means a lack of independence. The solution is simple: Minimize the tendency for Swedish universities to hire their ”own products."

Inflated number of professors
The third problem has to do with the promotion reform that has led to a sharp increase in the number of ”professors” in the country. For instance, in the field of Political Science, there are today 10 times as many ”professors” as there were 15 years ago. In many of these cases, the promotions are well motivated, but the reform has also generated a marked inflation, not the least at smaller or midsize colleges. The competence among people with a professor title today is often weak. This increase is also costly and reduces the possibility to announce jobs that would add to the competition. In the academic world, many make an entirely ”internal” career — all the way from the cradle (student years) to grave (retirement), without moving or having to compete for jobs. The solution to this problem is also simple: Minimize the potential to promote individuals who lack experiences from universities other than their own.

Alvesson and Rothstein believe these three problems are interrelated. A weak academic leadership is incapable of asserting the importance of getting fresh blood from outside to their institutions but fall for the peer pressure around them, and as a result promote their own ”budding talents.” Weak academic leaders are not able to keep up the high skills required by professors. If the Swedish university system is to be rescued from becoming the next ”Pisa failure," then it is high time, Alvesson and Rothstein warm, to turn the ship around and raise the quality of the academic leaders in Sweden.