Swedish Academia Is No Meritocracy

After almost 14 mostly dismal years on the academic job market, I find it a consolation to read an opinion piece in Times Higher Education under the headline “Swedish Academia Is No Meritocracy“. In my experience this is also true for Denmark, Norway and Finland. In Norway, for instance, the referee board that evaluates job applications isn’t external to the department: it is headed by a senior employee of the department itself. With predictable results.

At Scandinavian universities, people who didn’t get their jobs in fair competition are often handing out jobs to their buddies without any fair competition. But I see encouraging signs that the PR disaster that recently befell Gothenburg University’s philosophy department may have put a scare into the whole sad business. At least temporarily. Meanwhile, I’m finishing my sixth archaeological monograph. Never having had a longer contract than 28% of one academic year.


Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

21 thoughts on “Swedish Academia Is No Meritocracy”

  1. True report! You will not find diversity and Merit at all in Swedish Universities. They select near and dear ones shamelessly! Many are EIC in known journals and promote and publish their peer papers! Shameless and Corrupt and preach fairness and transparency to the World


  2. To be honest, no academic area is immune to this. And beyond that, just do a quick search for “Bro culture” to realise this selective evaluation is endemic to any business area.

    Basically, either suck it up, or take your ball and leave, pretty much.


  3. “In Norway, for instance, the referee board that evaluates job applications isn’t external to the department: it is headed by a senior employee of the department itself. With predictable results.”

    OK, but realize that Sweden is an exception here in that there are external referees for job searches; in most countries there aren’t.

    On the whole, the process in Scandinavia and Finland is probably better than elsewhere. I’m not disagreeing with you, merely pointing out that elsewhere it is worse.


    1. Norwegian Universities and College academic and staff recruitment system is more corrupt than Sweden as there is always one or more committee member from same University or institutions. The best thing is they organized academic drama (skype, trial lecture and interview) in such manner you will feel they are really going to select best person for the position by finally will fall down to select near and dear ones. Everything from beginning is FIXED and RIGGED in their process. This is general trend be sure of course exceptions are always and everywhere.


    2. I applied for a job at Stockholm University once. The external external referees didn’t recommend the candidate the department wanted, so the department simply cancelled the job search and started again with new external referees.


      1. It is not a surprise about Sweden in fact in most Nordic Countries Universities academic positions are filled through NEAR and DEAR policy which is norm and merit based selection is exception. They are Shameless and Corrupt to core and what ethical and moral values they will inculcate in their students.


  4. In Norway, for instance, the referee board that evaluates job applications isn’t external to the department: it is headed by a senior employee of the department itself.

    This is considered normal in the US as well. Most of the members of the committee will be in the subfield in which the department is looking to hire (at least in physical science departments; I know essentially nothing about faculty searches in humanities and social science departments). There may be somebody in a different field there to keep the other search committee members reasonably honest.

    This committee does not, in general, make the final hiring decision; that is typically done by the department as a whole and the choice approved by the relevant dean. What the committee does do is select the short list (typically four or five candidates, but I have seen as few as two and as many as six) of candidates who are brought to campus for in-person interviews.

    Things do often get tricky with trailing spouses. It is common, at least in the US, for women with Ph.D.’s in the physical sciences to be married to men who have Ph.D.’s in the physical sciences, leading to the infamous “two-body problem”. The trailing spouse won’t necessarily be offered a tenure track job, but there will be some effort to ensure that (s)he can find employment in the same metropolitan area. A tenure-track position for the trailing spouse becomes more likely as the level of the hire increases, approaching certainty for hires at the dean level or higher.


  5. How true! Swedish universities are soaked in nepotism and mafia activities. With my experience from Denmark, Finland, Germany and the US, I can only conclude that the Swedish system is the worst: corrupt through and through. Department heads hire friends or even former PhD students, who can go on to become department heads themselves and hire their friends or people who can do the work for them. And that does not stop a career which can move on to more imortant posts.
    Laws may require public announcements and external experts etc, but if you break the law it is accepted as long as you don’t appear in the news.
    And the result is predictable: in spite of the largest per capita investments in public funded science in the world, Sweden shows slowly but consistently falling grades in science when measured with internationally recognized metrics.
    The latest idea is to completely abandon inclusion of the scientist’s qualifications when proposal time comes around. Seriously!
    But of course, that certainly makes it easier to move the goalposts.


    1. The latest idea is to completely abandon inclusion of the scientist’s qualifications when proposal time comes around.

      Huh? Please elaborate!

      60% of Swedish university professors (that is, the tier above lecturer) are employed at the department where they did their PhDs.


  6. ‘The latest idea is to completely abandon inclusion of the scientist’s qualifications when proposal time comes around.’

    This is according to the latest newsletter from VR. Happily only a suggestion, but there is no guarantee this will not be implemented.


  7. You mean they might evaluate project proposals without knowledge of the applicant’s qualifications? If this can be done blindly, without knowing anything else about the person either, it would actually be effective against nepotism.


  8. I don’t see any reasonable way to evaluate somebody’s publication record without having some idea who the person is. If you list the publications (whether they are monographs or journal articles or conference proceedings–whichever the field in question typically uses to evaluate this), then it’s kind of obvious who the person is. If you don’t, then it becomes a counting game, and you encourage the submission of Least Publishable Units. Not to mention that there is no way under this method to distinguish a crank publication from a legitimate publication.

    If the field is small enough, then a truly double blind review becomes impossible, because everybody knows everybody else, and the reviewers can deduce who the authors are. The reverse, authors deducing who the supposedly anonymous reviewers are, is already a problem in my field; it is a common game to “guess the reviewer”.


    1. Eric, it sounds like Klavs might be suggesting that they evaluate the proposals without reference to anyone’s publication record. Which would of course cause insurmountable problems with blinding, given that everyone in a field knows who usually does what.

      J.A.T., a major personal problem of mine with the Swedish inbreeding system is that I didn’t get along with the powers that were the department when I did my PhD. Which has left me out in the cold.


  9. I’m not in academia, but from my friends who are, in the US there is a cultural thing that you don’t go to grad school where you did your undergrad, and you don’t post-doc where you did your doc.
    I do know people who are tenure-track at the institution where they got their PhDs, but it’s very unusual. (Physical sciences)

    I don’t think it’s any kind of rule, just one of those cultural things, but it might help a smidge with reducing the “I’ll just hire my student” thing.


  10. “Things do often get tricky with trailing spouses.”

    As much as I sympathize with their predicament (and I did work in academia four years abroad while the family were living in another country, so I know what I am talking about), offering the trailing spouse a job they would otherwise not get is completely wrong. In any other context, getting a job because one has a sexual relationship with the “right” person is considered morally wrong (not because of the sexual relationship, but because employment should not be based on it).

    The justifications are bad, really bad. “Oh, it’s not a permanent job, it’s just a five-year fellowship until I can find something else.” Yeah, right, many struggling junior scientists would like one of those. “I’m not taking a job away from anyone since the position was created especially for me.” The money had to come from somewhere. “It is difficult for my spouse to find a job nearby.” Not compared to other people’s spouses who perhaps cannot even work at all at the new location.


  11. For trailing spouse hires in the physical sciences in the US, there is at least the option of a research faculty position. This means the position is entirely funded by grant money, and would typically be equivalent to the position (s)he had at the previous institution. The funding agencies typically don’t care whether the work is done in Berkeley, California, or East Podunk, Vermont. The hosting institution is expected to supply an office. Overhead from the grants will typically cover that expense. So that scenario is at worst break-even for the hiring institution.

    Universities are not immune to the prestige factor, either. This is why it may be in their interest to have Mrs. (or Mr., as the case may be) Dr. Bigshot on their payroll along with newly hired Prof. Bigshot. The US system also tends to favor superstars, which also tends to encourage such hiring since superstars can credibly threaten to go somewhere else that will satisfy their demands. Not that this is necessarily defensible, but I do expect institutions to act in what they perceive to be their interest.

    I do know that administrative hires at the dean level or higher invariably include a tenured professorship in the appropriate department for external hires (internal hires will of course already have this). Even when trailing spouses are not an issue, this has been the case. It’s rare for a former administrator to go back into teaching, but I have seen it happen.

    Incidentally, the highest paid state official in every US state works for a state university. Most often it’s either the (American) football coach or the men’s basketball coach; some of these are paid even more than the President of the US. (Which gives you an idea of how warped priorities are in the US, since the legislature can in principle refuse to appropriate money for such salaries.) In some states it’s a university president, or dean of the medical or law school. Private universities also tend to pay their presidents and revenue-sport coaches very well.


  12. At Scandinavian universities, people who didn’t get their jobs in fair competition are often handing out jobs to their buddies without any fair competition.


  13. Norwegian Universities and Universities Colleges recruitment system is also corrupt and not fair at all. They just organized a drama by forming a senior academic committee for this purpose and later on institutions academics committee of Univ. or College will organize skype interview and then trail lecture cum interview to show they are very honest and ethical but finally will select their NEAR and DEAR ones! Shameless so-called academics of Norway. There is also no regard for Meritocracy!


  14. Higher Education: A Hotbed of Corruption?
    Hardly any week goes by without the appearance of an article on corruption in higher education. The stories cover not only individual students or faculty but also whole institutions and even countries. And corruption in higher education has even crossed borders and become global. One cannot help asking whether higher education has become the hotbed of corruption.

    “Corruption for resources, fame and notoriety place extraordinary pressures on higher education institutions…….In some instances, corruption has invaded whole systems of higher education and threatens the reputation of research products and graduates, regardless of their guilt and innocence”. This quote comes from Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Report: Education. It can well be illustrated by what is apparently happening in Australia. In April 2015, the Four Corners program of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation revealed examples of how the standards of Australian universities are being compromised through corrupt practices, mainly as a result of the pressure on them to recruit foreign students and to ensure that they pass the exams in order to obtain much-needed funds. The examples given included the involvement of fraudulent recruitment agents, universities graduating poorly qualified or unqualified nurses, widespread plagiarism, cheating and exploitation. The program was appropriately labelled ‘Degrees of Deception’. In 2014, a story appeared relating how fraud and corruption within and outside Australia’s immigration services enabled thousands of foreign students to acquire illegal permanent residency visas in Australia, thereby resulting in unemployment of Australian graduates.

    Corruption appears to be rampant in Russia as well. In September 2014, a paper was published in the online journal International Education Studies, describing the alarming situation of corruption in modern Russian higher education that might take the form of cheating on entrance exams, paying a bribe to facilitate the admissions process, bribing professors for better grades. Corruption is also suspected among faculty and senior administrators who may clandestinely negotiate any number of benefits for themselves. It mentions that nearly 50% of the student intake of 7.5 million in 2008/2009 academic year had to face corruption and adds that “the corruption component of the whole industry could be compared with the budget of a small country”. The paper gives examples of the wide range of corrupt practices in higher education, mentioning the case of a Dean who accepted a bribe of €30,000 for a PhD admission, and the feedback from the Moscow Police that some 30-40 Professors are caught each year for accepting bribes for good grades.

    Africa, of course, has its fair share of corruption in higher education. It is reported that in May 2015, South African authorities shut down 42 bogus colleges and universities that were offering fake and unaccredited programs, including three supposedly US-based universities offering degrees in 15 days. In Nigeria, which has the largest higher education system in Africa, areas where corruption occurs most frequently among academic staff are in promotions, falsified research for publication in journals, fake journals, obligating students to buy texts written by the professor and other corrupt practices related to publications. Some professors indulge extortion of money for handouts and marks, and sexual harassment. In a 2012 anonymous survey among 475 students in three East African universities, about a third of the students admitted to plagiarism and to fabrication of references, 25% to collusion in an examination to communicate answers, and 5% to impersonating someone else in an examination. Even a small country like Mauritius has not been immune to corruption. A couple of supposedly branch campuses of private Indian universities, set up in Mauritius without the necessary approval of Indian authorities and offering degrees that would not be recognized in Mauritius or India, are in the process of being closed down.

    The sale of fake degree certificates of well-established universities and the operation of institutions that provide degrees with hardly any period of study, commonly known as degree mills, are now well-known. There are reported cases of even politicians, religious leaders and other senior officials in various countries, developed and developing, who have purchased fake degrees. Most of the degree mills are located in North America and Europe, while others are scattered globally in hidden locations. So far, attempts at stopping the operation of degree mills have had limited success. UNESCO has created a portal that lists all the recognized higher education institutions in different regions of the world. While this is helpful, a more aggressive approach would have been to create a ‘blacklist’ of known and identified degree mills. No organization has so far established and made public such a list, no doubt fearing legal and political repercussions.

    But perhaps the most shocking corruption scandal, known as the Vyapam scam, has just surfaced in India. Vyapam is a government body in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and is responsible for conducting entrance examinations for government jobs and for admissions to higher education institutions, including the much sought-after medical colleges. There had been earlier reports of irregularities in Vyapam but until recently no one had imagined the scale of the admission and recruitment scam, involving politicians, businessmen, senior officials and some 2,500 impersonators taking exams in the name of weaker students. More than 2,000 people have been arrested. Worse, tens of people directly involved in the scam have died, some in suspected cases of murder and suicide. The matter has now been referred to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation.

    It is high time now to declare war on corruption in higher education. Action must be taken at multiple fronts: institutional, national, regional and global. There are already organizations addressing some of the issues, such as UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) and the US-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). But there is a need to set up, perhaps by UNESCO, of a consortium of relevant national, regional and international organizations to devise appropriate strategies, policies and actions for combating the scourge. The guiding principle for the consortium should be that higher education is neither a business nor an industry, but a social good impregnated with values. The war on corruption in higher education must be vigorously fought and won; if not, the national and global consequences could be too serious to be even contemplated.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: