How can the opportunities for lifelong learning and higher education be made more equal throughout Sweden? One way to achieve this is through cooperation between universities and municipalities, something that is currently being developed and tested in the project “Nya vägar” (“New Paths”), funded by Vinnova. In May, the first conference of the same name was arranged.

Campus Västervik, an active participant in the project, hosted the conference, which was organized in collaboration with University West, Linnaeus University, the Regional Association of Kalmar County and The Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO).

Issues discussed during the two days included how to reduce the education gap between rural and urban areas, the role of the municipalities in promoting lifelong learning, and what role the state should take. The government was criticized for not having acted quickly and forcefully enough on the issue.

The municipal council chairman in Västervik, Tomas Kronståhl (Social Democrat) said, “A small country that is so dependent on exports should not compete with low wages but rather with competence. Why don’t we invest?”

Local tax money for building campus

In Västervik, the municipality itself has invested relatively substantial funds to build and attract people to Campus Västervik. The campus is currently being expanded, and the goal is to soon be able to serve 700 students.

Tomas Kronståhl (Social Democrat), Municipality of Västervik; Eva Nordmark, TCO; Charlotta Tjärdahl, The Swedish National Union of Students (SFS); Fredrik Christensson (Centre Party), Member of Parliament; and Johan Wester.

The municipality of Skellefteå, which was also represented in the list of speakers, has also taken matters into its own hands and, in collaboration with other actors, built a campus. In both municipalities there are several universities that offer training in the area thanks to the fact that there are now premises, support personnel and a built-in infrastructure for students. This allows those who want to become nurses or teachers or earn a bachelor’s degree in science to study in in their own region, which increases the chance that they will then stay on in the area to work.

Collaboration one of the keys

Smaller colleges and universities and smaller towns have an advantage, argued several panellists: they have always been forced to collaborate, unlike the large, well-established universities that do not have the same need and that receive a larger share of state resources.

The business sector’s perspective was often brought to the fore during the conference. Employers are crying out for labour; if they cannot recruit where the company is currently located, they will move. This makes local and regional opportunities for education and skills development a critical issue for regions that are located far from a university. If the regions fail to provide these opportunities, they lose both residents and businesses.

Västervik hopes to become a pilot project for post-secondary education in campus form. Those involved in the project think that the model could spread across the country, and if 20 or so similar campuses could be built, all of Sweden would be covered, they argue.

“If it is to happen quickly enough, there must be state resources,” said Ingrid Thylin from Skellefteå municipality.

The system disadvantages lifelong training and distance education

There was criticism of the current system of resource allocation, which promotes programs over single-subject and online courses. TCO called for educational programs to be opened so that professionals can more easily continue their vocational training through single courses; this would also benefit program students, as they would then have a direct connection with working professionals and benefit from cross-generational learning.

The ongoing government investigation of the system of governance and resource allocation in universities and colleges (STRUT) was deemed by several participants to be insufficient to effect change in the forms of education that are favoured. Sweden’s student unions, SFS, were also sharp in their criticism.

“It is a fateful question for Sweden,” said Eva Nordmark, chairman of TCO.

Opinions were split about how the resources should instead be allocated. SFS pushed for a participant-based system instead of the current performance-based one, while others wanted a stronger direction towards, for example, skills development for professionals.

During the New Paths conference, it was clear that the project was largely driven by talented and determined visionaries. These people want to develop their home regions, they see the value in education, and they understand how local educational opportunities can increase a region’s attractiveness in varied ways. They demonstrated that it is faster and more effective if local leadership takes ownership of the issue and acts, rather than putting their hopes in the state solving the entire problem of unequal opportunities for lifelong learning.

“For the introduction of learning centres to be sustainable, it must rest on local leadership,” said Fredrik Christensson, MP and Centre Party spokesman for youth employment, higher education and research.