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Swedish Education – On A Slippery Slope

The latest PISA report shows that Sweden is falling back in ranking again. International comparisons between universities show the same thing for them!

This cannot go on if Sweden shall keep up its standard of living and continue to be a modern and innovative country that attracts energetic people and enterprises. At the same time, we must be able to handle the large immigration of people with considerably lower education than current Swedish average.

What is going on in schools and universities? Why have we got into this situation?

Take a look at the technical universities to start

Less than half of all who are accepted to technical universities leave with a degree! Of course, some may get an irresistible job offer before the exam, but the majority of the dropouts leave the university because they find they don’t have the prior knowledge to assimilate the education.
This has certainly changed since the Sixties when almost everyone accepted left with a degree.

One explanation of the change may be that the grades in different subjects were given different weights so e.g. the grade in mathematics was multiplied with 2 while the grade in history was multiplied with 0.5. Nowadays all grades have the same weight. Therefore high grades in social sciences and history may make up for low grades in mathematics and physics and that doesn’t give the best basis for advanced technical studies. At many universities, they must run preparation courses in mathematics to make up for deficiencies in the mathematical skills the students should have acquired in secondary school.

Another possible explanation is that almost 40% of all secondary school students are accepted to university today. Compare to Switzerland where only 25% are accepted to a university and they have very few dropouts. Asked why they thought 25% was a reasonable figure, the Swiss unanimously agreed that there was a maximum number of students with theoretical prerequisites for higher education without the quality of education falling.

A third explanation is that Swedish school education for long has emphasized that all knowledge is relative and that all approaches and perspectives are of equal value. This does not promote learning of facts, which are required in higher education. More about this below.

It is also a common belief that there is a big shortage of trained engineers that must be fixed by increasing the number of places in the programmes. I cannot see why this should help if it already isn’t enough students with sufficient qualifications. If there was a real shortage, the salaries of the engineers would increase compared to other work categories, but that is not the case, on the contrary! It is said that currently in Sweden there are 60,000 open positions, where IT competence is required, which are difficult to man. It does look like a big mismatch.

The conclusion must be that the problem is the quality of the education and the solution is to make sure that more students get their degrees within the right subjects. This can only be achieved with increased quality of the secondary school education and making sure that only the best-suited students are accepted to the technical universities.

What about universities in general?

At most university subjects there are too few lessons per week and very often no compulsory attendance. In some cases, just the attendance to lectures will give course points even if the student sleeps through the lesson. There are still written tests but the student associations often argue for tests becoming more of a negotiation! The consequence of too few lessons is that the students must educate themselves much more. With lacking quality of secondary school education and insufficient competence in basic subjects like Swedish and English languages, this is much more difficult. That can explain the high number of dropouts.

Another fact is that the Swedish university students are the oldest in the world (average just under 29 years) and stay too long before getting a degree. 25% need 5 years or more to get an exam compared to OECD average of 9% (Please see OECD’s yearly “Education at a Glance”).
The average age to start university studies is 24 years, which is 6 years after nominal secondary school exam. However, high starting age may not be a real problem unless it is an indication of hidden unemployment. Staying too long is, of course, a problem because of the cost for both the student and the society.

Sweden also has the world’s lowest education premium. In average a university student can expect to earn only 17% more than someone with only secondary school. Students with secondary school only and vocational education are very often better off both on the work market and regarding remuneration. University engineers, economists, lawyers, physicians have better prospects but that means that the situation for the other categories of university students e.g. teachers are even worse. The best students, therefore, will become engineers, economists, etc and not teachers.

Another problem is that the matching on the work market is bad and getting worse. Many students have too much education for the work they are doing but not the right competence.

In spite of the dubious results the cost of the longer university programmes is high, Sweden spends almost 50% more than OECD average. The return of the higher education is not good enough, neither from an individual nor a society perspective.

Finally. we must do something to the secondary school education in order to increase the competence of the students. Today too many leave basic school (“grundskola” - 9 years) and secondary school (“gymnasium” - additional 3 years) with not enough competence for the jobs which are available or for continued university studies.

One example from a well-known university is that a test of new students ability to write Swedish showed that 20% had so low skills that they would not be able to follow the teaching. Those students would need a basic course in the Swedish language to reach secondary school level which should not be the undertaking of the university. Both students with Swedish born parents and students with immigrant parents showed the same worrying result.

Such shortcomings of the secondary school education can easily explain why only half of the accepted university students complete their studies and get a degree.

It is important, that the university students get the right qualifications i.e. what is asked for by the work market but also that the knowledge is sustainable and able to form a basis for life-long learning. From an article in The Mission (2017-10-17): “Educate Yourself! — Your #1 Newsletter for Accelerated Learning” I quote this: “The most important skill for a young person today is learning quickly and effectively. Since the Great Recession, nobody buys the false impression that you can get a credential after studying for four years, land a job, and then have a career with the same core set of skills over your entire life. Even professional career tracks like medicine and law are under outside economic and technological pressure to change and adapt at a faster pace than ever before.

The troubled basic and secondary school education

The political position that “everyone is equal and has equal rights” is an interpretation of the basic values expressed as “democracy, human freedoms and rights, and a social market economy”.
The goal was that even pupils from families with little study tradition should be given equal opportunities and therefore the school should provide everything. The view was that: Anyone pupil can learn anything if he/she just gets the right support.

Problem is, that they don’t get the right support for many reasons and everyone cannot learn everything because they don’t have equal intellectual and physical capabilities.

It has not worked out well, instead, it has limited overachievers, except for the very best who fix it themselves, and made it even worse for underperforming pupils.

Why has this happened? There are many reasons:

    There is a perception that teachers should not teach but help the pupils to find and create the knowledge on their own. This is also supported by the postmodern idea that facts are something relative and can be interpreted depending on the individual’s understanding.
    The curriculum often does not specify that the pupils must have specific knowledge. It mainly specifies the methods. Instead, the pupils should be able to “conduct argumentation”, “criticize arguments”, “discuss”, “get insight into”, i.e. nothing to do with real knowledge of facts.
    Teachers use methods and a pedagogy which is 50 years old and based on Marxist ideas from the sixties. Modern brain research has shown that knowledge about facts is important and basic for the ability to understand and go further in acquiring more knowledge. 90% of all new teachers feel they lack the methods required to carry out the teaching.
    There is not good enough order in the classrooms. Study peace is a condition to be able to learn, otherwise, the brain is short-circuited. Teachers have not enough authority. Therefore it is utterly important that all new teachers learn how to create a good study environment.

About this and a lot more you can read in a new book edited by Magnus Henrekson: (In Swedish) Kunskapssynen och pedagogiken – varför skolan slutade att leverera och hur det kan åtgärdas (The view on knowledge and pedagogy – why the school stopped delivering and how it can be fixed)

Henrekson states that the basis in school is to learn a good language, which you can handle and command. If not, you are screwed because you cannot assimilate further information.

Competent people will always be attracted by venues which are meritocratic. Examples of venues which attract young people are music, game development, sports, and e-sports. When there is a ranking built on knowledge and competence, it is accepted. You see it in the best companies and the most successful sports teams. With its view of knowledge and its disparagement of the teacher to become a coach, an actor among others in a social process, the school deprecates a meritocracy based on knowledge and competence. This is dangerous as it can lead to young people being attracted by criminal meritocracies instead if those are where they get respected. This trend is already seen in some suburban areas dominated by criminal gangs.

The countries which do as we do in Sweden now will successively lose both the economic and the technological leadership. The countries, which do not let their schools be pervaded by a view on knowledge based on constructivism, with related ineffective work models, will be the leading countries in 40 to 50 years, or even earlier.

Henrekson means that the reason for the successes of the western civilization is that we succeeded going from a heritage country and a class society to meritocracy and a knowledge society. We agreed about what was real knowledge and those who had that knowledge advanced in the system and were entrusted important positions and greater responsibility for resource usage.

If you instead emphasize that all knowledge is relative and that all approaches and perspectives are of equal value, then the meritocracy is eroded. Without meritocracy, there is no way for the most competent, conscientious, and ambitious individuals to claim the leading positions of the society.

The people who created our democracy and the welfare attended the old school which is dismissed today. What will today’s generation create?

Now, beginning in the school, we are destroying everything that made our society successful.

However, I don’t think we neither should or can just go back to the old type of school with authoritarian teachers and teaching of (selected) facts without explanations. The society and the technology have changed too much and all information is easily available.

Romania provides an example of a more traditional/conservative education system, which is regarded being not too great either. It’s highly centralized, government-defined regarding curriculum, the number of hours spent, teaching staff employment etc. While the Swedish system delivers too little real information to the pupils, the Romanian system delivers too much and the pupils don’t know what is useful and get lost in details.

A Romanian academic friend of mine believes, rightly, that there is a crisis of sorts in educational systems around the world. His advice is to deregulate the curriculum such that each school would have autonomy in defining what works for them, ideally by getting input from local industry and commerce. This is similar to what Henrekson recommends, especially if the results are checked by independent tests.

Henrekson means that if the official Sweden was prepared to say that: This is the knowledge that should be taught and had an examination that showed if it had been done, then we should know which contest we were in. Then you can experiment with different teaching methods and see which comes out best and form good cases to be spread and imitated. This would work regardless of whether the schools were managed by public authorities or private organizations.

Today the School Inspection does not measure the results but only if the schools have followed the prescribed work process.

Swedish schools are also lagging behind in using digital teaching aids! Denmark uses 10 times as much money per pupil. Soon every Swedish pupil will be equipped with a computer and the schools spend millions on hardware but almost nothing on specialized teaching software and aids. Reference:

So what should be done?

    Re-establish teachers authority in the classrooms. If it’s noisy in the classroom the pupils cannot concentrate on learning. A good teacher must have respect and that is based on competence both in pedagogy and the actual subject.
    Improve the education of teachers. More money is not the solution. Stop teaching the current non-scientific pedagogy and introduce a modern brain research-based pedagogy. Increase the number of teaching lessons, today the students get only 5 hours or less per week. Run more intensive courses, perhaps just one year, in addition to the subject-oriented academic knowledge.
    Require better academic merits from the intended teachers. The merits of intended teachers have sunken since long and almost anyone with academic grades would be accepted however low their ratings are.

These measures would improve the status of the teaching profession and hopefully also result in better salaries and possibilities to get promoted. A way to make the teaching profession more popular and thus attracting more competent students.

To improve the education at basic school and secondary school not only the teachers must be more competent (There are of course already a lot of competent teachers in our schools but they are too few), but also the curriculum and the methods must be changed and improved.

    Specify what knowledge is required in each subject at school. Facts and basic competence in mathematics and Swedish language are essential for the ability to go further and learn more, both through tutorials and at universities, regardless of whether the student reads books, listens to lectures, or uses the Internet.
    Put the focus on the most basic subjects like language, mathematics, physics, and chemistry. These are necessary to study and understand other subjects like history, civics, and biology.
    Give freedom to schools to specify curriculum and teaching processes. Those with the best results (in independent tests) will become good examples for others to follow.
    Test what level of knowledge is reached by the pupils and provide testimonials. This is good not only for checking the system but also to provide feedback to the pupils. Offer support to under-performers.
    Stop teaching that all knowledge is relative. All subjects must be based on scientific facts. Reprogram brain-washed teachers who still believe in relativism and non-scientific pedagogy. Get rid of those who refuse to change.
    Provide vocational education for those who don’t have the qualifications or don’t want to study at universities. Follow the Swiss and German examples.
    Use digital teaching aids. It is not enough just to provide computers to everybody, specialized teaching software must also be used.
    Develop engaging new teaching software, perhaps based on modern computer game principles. Much can be done in this area and it can be a way to engage the youth in learning new facts. Remember how engaging computer games are!
    Don’t forget AI! In the report: Shaping the future of work …… (McKinsey) there is an important conclusion: Our research shows significant value in embracing AI and automation but sees a requirement for new skill sets among employees and a policy response around education, training, and the social contract. To teach such new skill sets is something especially vocational education and universities should embrace.

It is extremely urgent to introduce all of the above actions. It must be done now! We have already lost a generation or more. Sweden is not a meritocracy anymore. Too many of our current politicians, leaders, teachers, media staff, and people, in general, have been "destroyed" by the inferior and relativistic education and they are not competent enough.
We must quickly educate and train a new generation of people which are not infected by the relativistic view on everything from simple scientific facts to all kinds of cultural manifestations. Perhaps even some of our current politicians and media staff can be educated and reprogrammed.