Pam Fredman, President of IAU and SAC, SIGHT Advisory Committee

Pam Fredman

An open window

Early rays of spring sun light up the room. Pam Fredman is sitting in her summer house and we meet through our screens, keeping to guidelines of social distancing – at different parts of Sweden. The days are pretty different nowadays for the President of the International Association of Universities, IAU, and chair of SAC, SIGHT Advisory Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

By Ulrica Segersten

Being used to a life of relentless meetings and travel as a professor and vice-chancellor of University of Gothenburg (2006–2017) she is happiest working, although she admits that quarantine existence gives her more time for gardening work than usual.

Perhaps, one day, not all interviews will be about corona. This day has not yet come. We are all still overwhelmed by the pandemic that tends to affect everything and everybody. This goes for all university leaders, teachers, scientists and students in Sweden, despite rumours of the opposite.

– Everything is different. We will not return to how it once was, is Pam Fredman’s reply when the student coordinators of SIGHT want to know how teaching will change post-corona.

– Saying this, I want to stress that we will continue to meet physically even after this. We have to meet, and university campuses are vital for students and teachers, but so much more will be done online, as we work cross-borders and in international cooperation both in research and education. In fact, I think that possibilities for scientists and students unable or unwilling to travel across the world, for financial or climate reasons, will open up, as many more realise how much is feasible to do online.

On the other hand, there is a very real risk of increasing inequality between the world’s students, according to Pam Fredman. Online teaching can work just fine but is dependent on infrastructure and internet connections. This is lacking in many developing countries. But also, students in more affluent countries can experience difficulties participating online due to in equalities such as living environments, disabilities etc.

Throughout her career, Pam Fredman, a professor in neurochemistry, has worked to bring people from different disciplines together. As vice-chancellor of the University of Gothenburg her aim was to create ONE university out of the diversity of disciplines. Committing to become chairman of the SIGHT advisory committee, SAC, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was natural to her.

– Long before SIGHT existed, I remember discussing with Peter Friberg the need to bring together knowledge in global health and to develop interdisciplinary cooperation. The approach is not very different from 2030 Agenda and the 17 sustainable development goals. You have to understand the entirety, no matter what goal you are focused on knowledge-wise.

Hopefully the pandemic has strengthened the understanding of the importance of different disciplines getting together to focus on global health. It is abundantly clear that a pandemic concern is much more than healthcare. All areas in society are affected by covid-19 and the recognition and importance of knowledge has clearly increased. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging the other way after years of disregard for knowledge and distrust in science.

– My international university connections testify that politicians and decision-makers on many different levels are now actively looking for contact with universities and scientists, says Pam Fredman.

In a student poll by SOS, (Student organizing for sustainability) asking why students chose higher education, the overwhelming reply from more than 3.000 students is that they chose university studies in order to contribute through deeper knowledge to develop the world in a more sustainable way.

– The responsibility of the universities is to enrich students with global perspectives. Internationalisation has always been part of building knowledge.

According to Pam Fredman the last year IAU survey on Higher Education for Sustainable Development showed that more universities are moving in a positive direction in terms of including sustainability goals (SDGs) interdisciplinary. She hopes that research funders will see the development as well.

– In the wake of the pandemic it will be quite impossible to deny the impact on health, economy, poverty, starvation, the need for vaccination and so on. Health is about systems. The window of illustrating this is wide open. When systems affect health and start to impact us personally, we can all understand this. It is no longer some sort of theoretical reasoning.

Although covid-19 very much highlights the fact that we are all part of a global system and need to meet challenges together, unfortunately there is also a trend towards more isolation.

– At the outbreak it became clear that most countries first and foremost thought of their own needs, and in some cases even stopped shipments of hospital equipment across borders. An isolationist viewpoint has gained ground, although most recognise that no nation can handle this without collaboration.

From her international viewpoint at IAU, Pam Fredman says she has been struck by the immense differences of conditions, structurally, culturally and in terms of resources.

– The global differences are still huge. Internationally, there is sometimes criticism against the way that western viewpoints tend to take over. This criticism is quite legitimate. Without being aware of it, we allow the western perspective to lead the way, assuming that our systems are the best. With that kind of attitude, we will never be able to reach the sustainability goals.

IAU has recently finished a poll on how distance learning has worked so far at universities throughout the world (as of March).

– The reports we have received so far show that although distance education works moderately well in some parts of the world, the situation is troublesome where infrastructure is not in place. But there are also big differences within countries, individuals have completely different conditions. I am afraid the inequality between students will increase significantly. The building up of knowledge through research and education which is so important to global health, is under threat in certain countries. This in itself will affect health – and it will happen quickly. Many countries will be left behind in terms of building up knowledge about their own populations. Amending this will not be cheap or easy.

Many universities are concerned about financing. Students receiving a sub-standard education will be less willing to pay – and payments from foreign students, normally an important source of revenue for many universities, is in danger of drying up completely.

– Some universities will probably be forced to close, while already attractive universities will attract more students. That is, students that can afford to pay.

At the same time Pam Fredman sees strengthening of international research collaboration able to include the covid-19 perspective.

Postgraduate students and postdoctoral work is already seriously affected by the pandemic and by the uncertainty of when everything will go back to normal. Even if much can be done online technology cannot replace physical meetings completely. I am worried about the long-term effects on higher education.

What is the role of SIGHT in all this?

– Global health is one of the truly big challenges now and ahead. It is important to have a platform that can gather knowledge and make it understandable and available to decision-makers and universities. In the longer run governments will hopefully see the need and chose to contribute to educations that can increase knowledge of global health. Someone needs to have a comprehensive picture of the sustainability goals and here SIGHT has an important role. I think that SIGHT has managed to do a great deal already with modest resources and has contributed great value to interdisciplinary collaboration.

She also sees an important role for SIGHT student network and SIGHT Fellows in providing students and scientists with a global perspective, priming them for future positions in society.

– Students in the network as well as SIGHT fellows are important ambassadors for global health.

Pam Fredman hopes that when more resources are allocated for the pandemic by decision-makers, they will still manage to see the wider perspective. That, for instance, climate change is no less important or less connected to health and global development.

– Quality in research is important, although time is of the essence. The academia needs to take this responsibility. The imposition is also on us that lower and middle income countries do not miss out in terms of research investment connected to the pandemic.

 SIGHT student network has discussed whether global health and new questions arising from the pandemic will influence curricula onwards. According to Pam Fredman, the 2030 Agenda is already driving these issues.

– It is more important to foster critical thinking in the existing different disciplines than to take on new subjects. At the same time, in-depth knowledge is perishable and needs to be replenished constantly, so it is vital to learn early on to put in-depth knowledge in perspective and be able to reflect on the effects outside one’s own discipline. After all, students are our hope in terms of reaching the sustainability goals.

Then again, Pam Fredman stresses, financing is important. Funding bodies must dare to try new things and accept that 100 percent performance can be difficult to reach in the beginning.

– Funding can’t lock us in and threaten the development. I think that global health is an excellent research perspective as long as we also remember financial perspective.

What do you hope that SIGHT will have achieved in five years?

– I think that SIGHT will be the natural platform that universities and decision-makers nationally and internationally trust in issues of global health. This is where they will turn when they need to get hold of relevant knowledge. I also hope that we will see more of SIGHT Fellows and that universities will see SIGHT as their common platform, a good they collectively own.


About Pam Fredman, Chair of SIGHT Advisory Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:

Professor of Neurochemistry and former rector of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, 2006–2017. Pam Fredman has held several leading positions within the University, for instance Dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Gothenburg – the Sahlgrenska Academy.

Over the years Pam Fredman has been active in a large number of scientific and scholarly contexts. Among other things she has been Chair of the European Society of Neurochemistry. Since 2016, Pam Fredman is the President of the International Association of Universities, which is affiliated with UNESCO and has over 600 members in 130 countries. the

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