The Swedish Higher Education Authority’s Pandemic Assignment – Interim Report 2

The coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on Swedish higher education institutions (HEIs) over a long period. In early summer 2021, the Government presented a plan for adjusting and ending the restrictions that were introduced at the beginning of the pandemic. The Public Health Agency of Sweden rescinded recommendations for distance education at HEIs. This allowed higher education institutions to gradually return to their regular operations during the autumn semester 2021 now that they were no long as restricted by the pandemic.

The return is occurring gradually at most HEIs and with a mixture of campus-based teaching and remote teaching. At the same time, there are differences in the pace of return and how it is planned. While some HEIs are resuming primarily campus-based teaching quickly, others have chosen to continue with remote teaching as their primary format for a longer period. To gain an understanding of the transition to remote teaching and remote working at HEIs, UKÄ has used mobile phone data to track activity at seven campuses during the period up until November 2021. The results show that activity during the most recent autumn was somewhat higher than autumn 2020 but the difference was not significant. It remains to be seen if campuses will open more for students and staff during the second half of the autumn semester, which many HEIs have announced. It is still far from the levels of activity on campuses that were normal prior to the pandemic.

An early consequence of the coronavirus pandemic was that many young people became partly or fully unemployed and that the outlook on the labour market was generally much worse for young people. Because of this, the Government began an extensive expansion of higher education in spring 2020. An increased interest in higher education together with the Government’s expansion efforts resulted in record numbers of students applying for higher education in autumn 2020.

Interest for higher education remains high. The number of applicants to higher education continued to increase in the autumn semester 2021 and is now higher than at any other time in the last ten years. The HEIs, however, reduced the number of applicants they accepted somewhat. This means that competition has increased for study openings within higher education.

Preliminary data for autumn semester 2021 show that the total number of students in Swedish higher education remains at a record level. The number of new entrants on programmes leading to a professional qualification increased significantly in autumn semester 2020, but this upward trend has now levelled out. At the same time, the number of new entrants on programmes in the autumn semester 2021 is significantly higher than before the pandemic. During the coronavirus pandemic, the percentage of women among students on programmes leading to a professional qualification has increased.

The social imbalance in recruitment to higher education increased during the first phase of the pandemic as more students from already overrepresented social groups have applied to study. This is seen both in the transition to higher education among 19-year-olds in autumn 2020 and in the social composition of the group young new entrants. The difficult situation for young people on the labour market has not led, however, to new groups applying to higher education.

The influx of students to higher education has resulted in more appeals to admission decisions. Between 2018 and 2020, the number of submitted appeals to the Higher Education Appeals Board doubled, and this trend continued in 2021. Behind the increase are more appealed admission decisions, which are likely both a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic and changes that make it easier for students to appeal to the Board.

The number of graduates has also increased during the pandemic. Four per cent more students graduated in 2020/2021 than the previous academic year. The increase, however, was less than during the pandemic’s initial year. There is no clear explanation for why the number of graduates has increased. For example, there was no equivalent change in the number of new entrants a few years earlier. On the other hand, the changes in the labour market during the pandemic have led to an increased interest in applying for the award of a qualification.

UKÄ has conducted several surveys of how teaching and research have been impacted by the pandemic and how the situation with remote teaching and remote work has impacted teachers and students. One survey of ten undergraduate courses shows that teacher-led time has not changed significantly during the pandemic, but instruction has been given in other forms. A significant challenge has been finding forms of examination for courses that previously provided traditional written examinations. Course content has largely been the same as prior to the pandemic, even when teaching has been provided remotely. The survey also shows that even though teachers generally feel that digital instruction has worked relatively well, interaction between the students and teachers has changed. This has impacted student learning.

Clinical training plays an important role in professional health care programmes, but the medical system’s taxing load during the coronavirus pandemic has impacted opportunities for students to obtain the skills training they need. A survey of the medical programme and nursing programme shows that most clinical training could be conducted during the pandemic. But some of the skills training modules were cancelled, provided digitally or replaced with theory training. There are signs that the pandemic contributed to advances in educational development. More concrete teaching has been introduced into clinical training. The survey shows that both teachers and students would like some of the changes to be made permanent.

An early and clear consequence of the coronavirus pandemic was a significant decrease in international student mobility. Exchange students were impacted the most, with significantly fewer in academic year 2020/21 compared with prior to the pandemic. Preliminary data for autumn semester 2021 shows that the mobility of incoming students has largely rebounded and is back to the same level as prior to the pandemic. But there are likely still fewer exchange spots for outgoing exchange students who would like to study at universities outside of Europe, since many of the partner universities to higher education institutions have suspended their exchange agreements. The HEIs are trying to compensate this lack of available exchange options by increasing exchanges with European partners.

UKÄ conducted surveys in spring and summer 2021 to determine the experiences of bachelor, master’s and doctoral students and researchers during the pandemic. The experiences of bachelor and master’s students are characterised by studies that largely have been conducted through remote studies during the pandemic. More than half indicate that this applied to all of their instruction, and nine of ten state that at least half of studies have been through distance education during the pandemic. At the same time, these students state that the teachers have organised the remote teaching well and provided good information on how instruction would take place. The bachelor and master’s students have also been encouraged to make suggestions on improvements to their remote teaching.

A majority felt that they received the support they needed from their teacher to complete their studies during the pandemic. But about one-third state that the lack of digital skills among the teachers has negatively impacted the quality of the teaching. There are some gender differences in how remote teaching is seen – women are generally more positive in their answers and indicate somewhat more than men that they have become more positive to remote teaching during the pandemic. Most have experienced stress and anxiety during the pandemic, and this was true of women more than men.

A study among Norwegian undergraduate and master’s students during the pandemic shows similar results. In Norway, like Sweden, these students are generally positive to the instruction they have received during the pandemic. Most bachelor and master’s students at Swedish HEIs rate their education highly despite the major transition to remote teaching – 77 per cent indicate that the quality of their education overall has been good or very good during the pandemic. At the same time, the number is lower than in the Student Mirror survey conducted in 2016. At that time, 91 per cent rated their education overall as good or very good.

Doctoral student experience of the transition during the pandemic, like bachelor and master’s students, was largely positive. A majority feel that it has worked well to work and conduct doctoral education through distance studies. Even if many argue that the amount of supervision has decreased during the pandemic, most are satisfied with the quality of the supervision they received. Most are also satisfied with the digital doctoral courses, seminars and defences of theses, as well as the equipment they have access to for working at home during the pandemic. Overall, the survey shows that the HEIs have generally succeeded in managing the pandemic’s consequences in a way that the doctoral students are satisfied with.

But there have also been difficulties for doctoral students. International collaborations have become fewer, and intellectual exchange with other doctoral students and senior researchers has decreased. More than half indicate that they have needed to cancel or delay parts of the doctoral education. This largely applies to the inability to collect data. For this reason, work on their thesis has taken longer than planned. Some doctoral students have applied to extend their doctoral studentship because of the pandemic, and the survey shows that most of these applications have been granted.

There are substantial differences across different research fields. Doctoral students within the humanities and social sciences have consistently responded more negatively to the survey questions than the average. It is also clear that foreign doctoral students have had more negative experiences of conducting doctoral studies during the coronavirus pandemic than Swedish doctoral students. On the other hand, there are no significant differences between the responses of women and men in the survey.

Researchers have had varying experiences. While some researchers in the survey have been relatively unaffected by the pandemic, others have had significant negative impacts. Many indicate that they have had problems with data collection that could not be conducted as planned. This finding is in line with the doctoral student survey. Within the humanities and social sciences, archives and libraries were not open enough and studies could not be conducted because of infectious disease restrictions. Restrictions for patient visits have impacted the work of researchers in the medical and health sciences, while researchers in the natural sciences have had a more difficult time conducting field studies because of travel restrictions.

Research has also suffered because teaching has taken more time in connection with the transition to remote teaching. Researchers have not been able to use their research funding as planned, which has led to reduced use of research funding. Many also feel that remote work during the pandemic has impacted research negatively. In the long term, there is a concern that the lack of physical meetings will lead to diminished productivity and quality of research.

Research infrastructures provide access to advanced technologies and equipment to Swedish researchers active in the country and, in many cases, are a prerequisite for being able to conduct internationally competitive research. The most prominent change among the studied research infrastructures is the development of new work methods and routines because of the transition to maintaining physical distance. At the same time, the infrastructures have quickly been able to adapt their operations to the changes in society. They have stable and long-term funding that is not significantly impacted by the pandemic, even if some have seen a decrease in the number of users. Several representatives have noted the capacity of the infrastructures to quickly analyse large amounts of samples and data. With a more developed national coordination and strategy, their potential to contribute to society during the pandemic could be leveraged better.

In its initial phase, the pandemic has had a limited impact on international recruitment of researchers at the start of their careers. As of October 2020, there had been no dramatic changes in the number of, the recruitment of or the retention of employees with career development positions at HEIs. At the same time, we see a levelling out in the increase in percentage of internationally recruited employees with career development positions that had been ongoing since at least 2012.

Even when looking at the percentage of internationally recruited employees with career development positions based on country of birth or citizenship, no clear impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found. As for retention in Swedish higher education among postdoctoral appointees, the results in the short term are clear – no significant change occurred during the period 2018–2020. This means that postdoctoral appointees during the pandemic’s initial phase continued in or left Swedish higher education after two years to approximately the same extent as previously.

Overall, the impression is that HEIs have managed the pandemic well considering the circumstances. Instruction has been maintained even if it has been very taxing on students and teachers. Research and doctoral programmes have also continued. Future work needs to try to place the Swedish experience in an international perspective and to begin studying – where possible – the long-term effects the pandemic on HEI activities.