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Reduction of mandates of external board members in Sweden

At the end of April, the Swedish Government announced a decision to reduce the mandate of government-appointed external university board members from 36 to 17 months. This unexpected decision was justified in terms of helping universities to limit potential foreign interference, via making it easier for experts on foreign interference to be appointed as  board members, and by making sure that the mandate of members with potential malicious intents is more limited in time, thus causing less potential harm to Swedish higher education institutions.  

The decision was contested by the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF) in their statement of 28 April, as well as by several individual higher education institutions in Sweden. Reactions were also issued by prominent university networks, such as the European University Association (EUA), the Coimbra Group, the League of Research Universities (LERU) and the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (The Guild).

While most stakeholder organisations acknowledge that higher education institutions need to be supported in mitigating the new risks of operating in an increasingly complex geopolitical environment, they express doubts about the appropriateness of this measure to significantly tackle such risks and fear the negative consequences of this change. Top of the list is the precedent this decision can set, by what can be regarded as a further politicization of board appointments, and a limitation of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Stakeholders also comment on the suddenness and unilateral character of this measure, without any prior consultation of the higher education and research sector., over a nomination process that had been previously highly collaborative between the two parties. Last, they caution that the measure ignores the wider consequences of having much shorter board mandates, making it more difficult for board members to provide truly strategic advice and assist universities over important transformations, that do not align with such short periods of time, undermining thus the very purpose of such boards.

Most of the statements appeal to the Swedish Government to reconsider the decision, safeguarding thus institutional autonomy and academic freedom in Sweden, and to work together with the sector on finding more appropriate measures to tackle emerging risks, following guidance from the EU level and the examples of other countries.