The Swedish Higher Education Authority’s Pandemic Assignment – Interim Report 1

The coronavirus pandemic has severely tested staff and students at the country’s higher education institutions (HEIs). According to an interim study for UKÄ’s government assignment on the consequences of the pandemic, the decisions and recommendations with the greatest impact on HEIs during the coronavirus pandemic so far have been the recommendation to not take unnecessary trips, the transition to distance teaching, the ban on public gatherings, the holding of the Swedish Scholastic Aptitude Test and the increase in the number of available openings for students.

Consequences of the Corona Pandemic on higher education so far

There have been significant consequences from these decisions, and the HEIs have taken many measures to address the challenges they present. By establishing local crisis organisations, the HEIs were able to quickly and effectively manage the acute situation. At the same time, the HEIs worked extensively to transition to online teaching, which required creative solutions to allow remote teaching, both theoretical aspects and practical aspects. One difficult challenge has also been to provide fair examinations.

The coronavirus pandemic has had major consequences for the economy, and the part of the labour market where young people often work has been particularly effected. The Government has attempted to address this by significantly expanding access to higher education. Together, this has led to an increase inflow of students to higher education. In the autumn semester 2020, there were 13 per cent more applicants without prior experience from higher education compared with the autumn semester 2019. At the same time, there was a 14-per cent increase in newly accepted students to higher education. There was a particularly large increase among 19-year-olds who graduated from upper-secondary school in the spring semester 2020. This group increased by 28 per cent compared with the previous year.
Not surprisingly, this resulted in an increase of new entrants to higher education in the autumn semester 2020 compared with the autumn semester 2019. The increase consisted of Swedish new entrants, which grew by 18 per cent, while incoming new entrants decreased by 49 per cent. In the autumn semester 2020, 19-year-olds made up 27 per cent of all new entrants, which is 3 percentage points more than in autumn semester 2019.

The outflow from higher education also seems to have been impacted by the pandemic: 9 per cent more students graduated from higher education
in academic year 2019/20 than the previous academic year. Other factors than the pandemic, however, may be behind this increase.

Labour market conditions may also effect some graduates during the pandemic. This depends, however, on the programme from which they graduated. For example, students with master’s or bachelor’s degrees in engineering have had much more difficulty finding work compared with graduates with nursing bachelor’s degrees, which have had it easier finding work.

Student results remain the same, but disciplinary cases increased significantly

The pandemic has had a major impact on higher education since teaching has largely moved online and formats for examination have changed while the inflow of students has increased. It is reasonable to assume that this would have consequences, such as on completion rates in programmes. But there are no clear differences between immediate dropouts between programme new entrants who began in spring semester 2020 and spring semester 2019.

There is, however, a clear difference in immediate dropouts between new entrants from groups with different social backgrounds. The immediate dropouts among new entrants with parents having a low-level of education increased in the spring semester 2020 compared with the year before, while it decreased among new entrants with parents having a high level of education. Whether this is a consequence of the pandemic needs to be studied in more detail.

There were also not any major differences between student performance levels between spring semester 2019 and spring semester 2020. This applies both overall and for different student groups; there are no clear differences in immediate performance levels between students with different social and national backgrounds. The exception is that younger students seem to have increased their performance level, while it decreased among older students in spring semester 2020 compared with the previous year.

The number of disciplinary cases has increased significantly during the coronavirus pandemic. The number of students that faced a disciplinary measure increased 61 per cent between 2019 and 2020. The most common cause of students being subjected to disciplinary measures was plagiarism, but unauthorised collaboration also increased significantly. Most HEIs have determined that the increase in disciplinary cases is because of the pandemic, since it occurred in connection with the transition to distance teaching, online examinations and take-home examinations. Proposed reasons for the increase have included lack of effective monitoring during online examinations.

Stress and anxiety rose among staff and students

Many HEIs have conducted their own investigations to determine how staff and students feel that the pandemic has affected their work. UKÄ has requested and compiled this material, which shows that the transition to distance teaching has, on the whole, been seen has having worked well. One important cause of the quick and mainly successful transition is that the technical infrastructure was already in place when the pandemic first struck. But the transition has also involved challenges. For example, conducting online examinations has been associated with many difficulties and regular quality assurance and enhancement work has in many cases been suspended.

Staff have experienced increased workload and stress. There are also signs that the transition to distance teaching has had a negative impact on their health and wellbeing. For example, sitting still has increased and the ability to work in peace has been impacted negatively. At the same time, there are examples of where working from home has not impacted the work environment negatively. Most staff are satisfied with the support they have received with technology and the physical working environment.

In their surveys, many HEIs have focused on student health and the study environment. In their surveys, a majority of students have experienced a worse study environment after the transition to distance teaching. The social aspects of student life worsened the most. Students reduced their social contacts and contacts with classmates and teachers significantly. Maintaining motivation and focus on studies has been a challenge for many. Students also describe a sense of loneliness, isolation and a longing for a social student life.

Many feel a worsening sense of wellbeing and an increase in negative stress and anxiety after the transition. This was both about the effects of the pandemic on their own life and situation and society at large and about the changes in their learning situation and new ways of being assessed through online examinations. But the transition also has resulted in positive changes for some students, such as increased flexibility and opportunities to study more effectively, less travel and more teaching material online.

A few foundations reduced reseach funding

How has the pandemic impacted funding of research at the country’s HEIs? Results so far point to the coronavirus pandemic not having impacted the ability of foundations and organisations to fund new research projects for the most part. The reductions in share dividends from Swedish companies in 2020 have not resulted in an equivalent decrease in research funding from the foundations. The Wallenberg Foundations and the Kempe Foundations, however, have temporarily significantly reduced their funding to new projects, which can have an impact on the HEIs and researchers that receive funding from these foundations.

Additional studies of how research, education quality, the situation for undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students, and other aspects of higher education have been impacted by the pandemic are necessary and are ongoing within the framework of the assignment. The results from these studies will be published as they become available during the assignment period.