Populism is a threat to internationalization in Sweden

Five leaders at two of Sweden’s top universities have written a joint article raising concern that the rising support for nationalism and populism sweeping Sweden is threatening internationalization in higher education and the benefits it brings to societal development.

Professor Sigbritt Karlsson, rector at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Professor Torbjörn von Schantz, rector of Lund University, Professor Sylvia Schwaag Serger, pro-rector at Lund University, Professor Ramon Wyss, former vice-rector at KTH, and Professor Stefan Östlund, vice-rector at KTH, wrote a joint opinion piece in Sydsvenskan on 11 November with the extended title: "We are looking with great concern at the wave of nationalism and populism that is sweeping over Sweden, Europe and many other countries in the world."

They said: "Sweden's long tradition of being an open society has contributed to the development of the economy and to [it becoming] an innovation force. Over recent years much of the public debate in Sweden has centred on migration, asylum and integration. Who is a Swede? Who has the right to stay in Sweden?"

But few have addressed why Sweden, which although sparsely populated has a large export sector industry and high level of technology and innovation, is dependent on international collaboration to meet the growing demand that an increasingly internationalized world brings.

"Sweden is an open society, and Sweden has been branded as a tolerant society that promotes individual freedom. Societal development benefits from international students staying in Sweden to work or set up their own companies and this is also sharpening the Swedish innovation system and contributing to increased employment," they argued.

Wave of nationalism and populism

"We are looking with great concern at the wave of nationalism and populism now sweeping Sweden and the simplifications and generalizations that we are often encountering in the debate today. This does not lead us forward; rather we are at risk of delaying and setting limits for our Swedish societal development,” they wrote.

Karlsson said that "internationalization befits an open society" and linked the joint article to the report on the internationalization of Swedish higher education, research and innovation that the special investigator Agneta Bladh delivered earlier this month.

"We would have preferred a more transparent and more explicit strategy for which parts of the world we shall concentrate our efforts on,” she said. “But the problem for such a Swedish strategy for internationalization is that we are living in a changing world.”

International collaboration, exchanges and competence exchanges [with other countries] are important for the academy and for positive societal development."

Bladh told University World News that she agrees with the university leaders in their embrace of the idea that society gains from internationalized universities.

“Also, other comments from the university sector in Sweden have been positive to the two reports I have delivered. So far, no politicians have commented on the reports – they seem to be fully occupied with finding sustainable ground for a new government after the election in early September.”

She said she had in fact considered proposing which part of the world the higher education institutions should focus their interest on but decided not to.

“Researchers find their collaborators all over the world and do not want to adjust their collaboration to colleagues in certain countries only. Higher education institutions can have strategic collaboration with institutions in many parts of the world and might find a proposal for a certain geographical priority as a burden,” she said.

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