Bjarne Kirsebom on the history of STINT

The video is in Swedish.

Bjarne Kirsebom, then State Secretary at the Ministry of Education and Research, headed the planning of STINT in the early 1990s. He conceived of the Foundation during a flight to Australia. Today, 25 years later, STINT is starting to resemble the idea he had at the time, he says.

How was STINT founded and what was your role?
I was State Secretary to Per Unckel, Minster of Education and Research, between 1991 and 1994. We created a number of research foundations during this period with capital from Fond 92-94, the old employee fund. Some of the other foundations created in the first round were the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, the Knowledge Foundation and the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (Mistra). Foundations were created in two rounds, and Per himself was very actively involved in the design of the first round. However, when the time came for the second round, of which STINT formed part, he had been appointed Principal Secretary of the first IT Commission, which took up a lot of his time. Therefore I had to deal most by myself with the creation of the foundations. I designed the proposals, consulted with the other parties and with my colleagues at the research politics unit wrote statutes and bills. 

The research foundations covered a range of areas, from environment and allergies to culture and the Baltic region. How was it decided that one of the foundations should promote international cooperation in higher education?
In a way, at least the specific specialisation STINT was to have was a coincidence. I had the actual idea on a trip to Australia. I found an issue of Dagens Industri on the plane, and read an interview with the chief of Thailand’s navy, which at the time was considering procurement of Swedish submarines. When asked why Sweden was considered, he answered that all his vice admirals were educated in Sweden. I do think something similar to STINT would have been created anyway, but the fact that STINT also includes higher education and not just research may be the doing of that Thai navy chief.

How did Sweden’s international research partnerships look at the time?
Most collaborations were very closely connected to individuals, usually senior researchers, and were directed by their knowledge, interests and competitiveness. Everything depended on individuals. International relations were severely underfinanced by universities; they simply did not think they had the funds. Although I cannot really imagine that a vice-chancellor who invested in an international partnership would have been criticised for doing so. 

What did you intend STINT’s contribution to be?
To provide what was missing: the strategic aspect of international partnerships. In addition to contacts depending on individual researchers, we also wanted more enduring relations to be created between higher education institutions at management level. An important aspect was the inclusion of students and junior researchers. 

When you look back, has STINT become what you imagined?
No and yet yes, you could say. We were properly defeated in the 1994 elections and never had the opportunity to explain our reasoning to STINT’s recently appointed board. They did not quite choose the path we envisioned, and for many years, STINT mainly focused on classic, rather small-scale project funding of individual research initiatives. There is nothing wrong with that, but this was not our vision for STINT. The last five or maybe six years, however, I have noted that STINT has changed direction. The focus has shifted to precisely strategic efforts and initiatives for stable, long-term partnerships. It feels as if the STINT we started to design in 1994 is beginning to take shape now, which is fantastic. 

STINT was planned to exist for at least ten years, but now the Foundation is turning 25. Some of its sister foundations no longer exist. Those familiar with the research world know that it is remarkably international at present. Is STINT still needed, and if so, why?
It is true that academia is international, but much of this is still centred on individual researchers’ relationships and networks. My impression, with the reservation that I as a pensioner no longer have a completely up-to-date view, is that international partnerships, which may be expected to last and develop 10 or 20 years because they are embedded both at management level and in research environments, are still unusual at Swedish higher education institutions. Above all, I believe that such relations do not exist at smaller higher education institutions, where the need is the greatest. So yes, I absolutely think that STINT still has an important role to play.

How has your view of international exchange in higher education changed?
I have become ever more convinced of its great importance over the years. International partnerships are important for many reasons – for the quality of research and education, competitiveness and growth. Personally, I still feel the strongest about international understanding between countries. I belong to a generation shaped by the recency of the Second World War. Embassies and consulates are infinitely small as far as building long-term relationships between countries is concerned; universities are the opposite: the closest to a mass effect we can get.

If we conclude by looking far into the future: what do you hope will Sweden have achieved in another 25 years in the area of international partnerships between universities?
I would like to see a number of strategic bridgeheads in North America, South America, Africa and Asia. By bridgeheads I mean university environments abroad frequented by younger Swedish researchers and students. As well as corresponding bridgeheads for other countries at Swedish higher education institutions. And I don’t think we actually need 25 years to achieve this.

Text: Anders Nilsson