Change and inertia in the development of Swedish engineering education
The industrial stakeholder perspective
Time: Fri 2020-06-05 13.00
Subject area: Education and Communication in the Technological Sciences
Doctoral student: Per Fagrell , Lärande, HEOS
Opponent: Professor Jennifer Case, Virginia Tech
Supervisor: Professor Lars Geschwind, Organisation och ledarskap, Lärande; Docent Anders Broström, Centrum för studier inom vetenskap och innovation, CESIS, Nationalekonomi
This thesis investigates higher education development in Sweden from an external stakeholder perspective, with a particular focus on engineering education. Industry has long been a major external stakeholder in the development of profession-oriented higher education, not least in the context of engineering education. Representatives of industry and other employers have continuously called for developments in the curriculum to prepare students for an evolving profession. Scholars of higher education have gone so far as to depict employers as the definitive stakeholder in higher education today. However, it has also been claimed that engineering education and its institutions are, and always have been, rather unresponsive to external calls for changes. These partly contrasting views call for a study of the role of industry vis-à-vis the different strategies that higher education institutions can draw upon to respond to external calls for change. Thus, the following overarching research question is posed: What kind of role does an external stakeholder such as industry have in the development of engineering education?
The conceptual framework for the thesis is based on literature on organisational continuity and change, response strategies to external calls for change, university–business collaboration, and curriculum development and quality. The main theoretical concept presented in the thesis, however, is stakeholder theory and stakeholder analysis. A model for stakeholder analysis is chosen and presented in which the assessment of the attributes power, legitimacy and urgency form the basis for the analysis of the stakeholders’ salience.
Empirically, the thesis is based on three studies, which have yielded four appended papers. The studies represent different situations in which external stakeholders have had the possibility of impacting higher education. All three studies have an interpretative and qualitative methodological approach, with semi-structured interviews as the main source for data collection, combined in the second study with historical document studies. In order to frame these studies in their historical context, an overview of the development of engineering education in Sweden is presented as a background. In this overview, the development of relationships between industry and engineering education institutions are depicted with reference to a series of milestone events.
The results show that, from a historical perspective, industry has indeed been an influential stakeholder to engineering education. It is argued that while industry still is an important stakeholder, higher education institutions today have to attend to the interests of a broader range of stakeholders, including students, government and others. Claims in the international literature that employers are the definitive stakeholder in higher education does not seem to fit well with the Swedish context, as analysed in this thesis. This may be partly understood as a consequence of a shift away from national-level decision-making regarding higher education development, leaving previous structures for active stakeholder influence less potent.
Important decisions about engineering education have in Sweden moved from a national and centralised level to an international level, exemplified by the Bologna Process and the global quality assurance and enhancement scheme called the CDIO Initiative, and at the same time to a local level due to an ambitious autonomy scheme for higher education institutions in Sweden. This can be seen as a divergent trend compared to an international setting, specifically in Anglophone countries where the Washington Accord acts as the basis for curriculum development. This accreditation agreement is heavily influenced by the accreditation scheme for engineering education in the United States, the ABET criteria, in whose formulation employer representatives have a major impact. It may be questioned whether industry representatives have fully recognised this shift in the decision-making process in the engineering curriculum in Sweden. With regard to earlier claims that engineering education and its institutions are unresponsive to external calls for change, the thesis concludes that higher education institutions respond and act, but not always in the way external stakeholders expect or want. External stakeholders have to persist in their eternal quest for progress and development in engineering education, but they may have to adjust and divert their attention to both an international and local context at the same time.
 CDIO: Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate