Confusion As Centre Holds (Times of London 8/25/95)

 After a year replacing a Conservative government which extensively decentralised Swedish higher education, the Social Democrats are finding it hard to re-assert their old authority.

Boel Flodgren, rector of Lund University is one of many university administrators strongly opposed to the policies of Carl Tham, minister of education and science, and his officials.

The university was just beginning to implement the 1993 reform engineered by Per Unckel, his predecessor, that gave the universities and colleges virtually total internal autonomy.

“It is very frustrating,” Ms Flodgren said. “The signals we are getting from Stockholm and the ministry is that they want to take some of our new powers back. It is extremely difficult to do any planning in this situation, not to mention govern the university on a day-to-day basis.”

Jan Ling, rector of Goteborg Jniversity, said: “Mr Tham and his people have to learn that when he imposes more and more rules, they take away the chance for genuine growth at the campus level.

“If a democratically elected government institutes one policy or the universities that is a clear break from the past, and which is then acted upon by the universities, and a succeeding government that doesn’t like it impose a programme regardless of the consequences?”

Mr Tham, a career public servant and former head of the country’s International Development agency, is the first Swedish education minister in memory to institute budget cuts, rather than preside over increased spending.

In a decade the budget for higher education and science grew to SKr50 billion (£4.4 billion), and student places doubled to nearly 300,000. Plagued by a crushing public debt and unemployment of nearly 13 per cent, Mr Tham has to slash SKr 800 million from the budget, a decrease of approximately 5 per cent on last year.

“Unfortunately, because of the recession, we must now talk about the reallocation of resources,” the minister said wearily.

Sveriges Forenade Studenkahrer, the Swedish national student union, regards this message with hostility. SFS was originally thankful for the downfall of the non-socialist coalition that ruled from 1991 until last year, partly because of an attempt to make SFS membership voluntary — a move which in effect would have made the organisation obsolete.

However, relief turned to anger earlier this year when, in one of its first major economies, the new government cancelled the long-standing 50 percent railway discount for students. The action led to the largest SFS-led student protest in years, as students marched and inundated the ministry of finance with more than 60,000 indignant postcards.

“We can’t understand how Tham can find the money to create 9,000 special scholarships for older students in the sciences,” said Stefan Amér, outgoing president of SFS, referring to an initiative to create opportunities for older, unemployed Swedes who did not complete higher education. But Mr Tham argues that the money for the scholarships in fact comes from the ministry of labour.

The minister is suffering from an image problem. Even in the best of economic times, Mr Unckel would have been a hard act to follow. Tempestuous, charismatic, and outspoken in his commitment to the revitalization of Swedish higher education, Mr Unckel swept through the musty precincts of Swedish academe like a tornado, convening impromptu meetings of university officials in airport lounges, cutting red tape, and vocally encouraging administrators to shake off the habits of decades of centralized rule and strike off on their own in pursuit of academic excellence.

In contrast, Mr Tham’s style is quieter, more cerebral, perhaps more technocratic. His education philosophy is very social democratic.

Under the Unckel regime, freedom became the watchword of higher education, along with competitiveness and quality control.

Mr Tham conceded that his predecessor helped to bring new energies and purpose to higher education, as well as more money. “He left me with a big pie, which made it easier for me to cut, and for that I am grateful,” he said.

But he also decried the “chaos” that had been left, particularly confusion among many secondary school students over college entry requirements. “By de-regulating too rapidly and allowing individual colleges to determine their own admissions procedures without central guidance or planning, Mr Unckel made a mess,” he said.

Mr Tham intends to rectify this situation by establishing a “smaller, more precise” Central Higher Education Authority to replace the structure abolished by Mr Unckel.

He is also abolishing the university ranking system Mr Unckel had set in place to start this year. He has questioned the university funding formula that the previous ministry had created, through which funds are distributed partly on the basis of examination pass rates.

“I think it may have led to some colleges watering down their exams so as to assure continued funding,” he said.

Leif Lindfors, university director of Stockholm University and a long-time education ministry official who was one of the architects of the Unckel reforms, denied that he had seen any such practices. “The new formula caused universities to pay more attention to undergraduate education, rather than simply focussing on research, as they had in the past.”

“Things had just startred to move, Mr Lindfors said. “Of course there was confusion, but there always is when there is change. Now, there is just confusion.”

The one measure for which Mr Tham has received major public attention — and the one he seems to be proudest of — is a controversial “gender bill” he introduced earlier this year to the Riksdag that would, among other things, set aside 30 new professorships for women. Sexual equality is a major government theme; for example, Mona Shalin, the deputy prime minister, goes by the title of deputy prime minister and minister for equality of sexes.

“The academic sector is the last bastion of male chauvinism,” Mr Tham said. “This bill is designed to change that. Knowledge, as they say, is power.”

Boel Flodgren, at Lund, who in 1991 was the first female rector ever elected in the Nordic countries, said that she supported the thrust of the affirmative action measure. However she questioned the 40 per cent recruitment goal embedded in the bill. “I am afraid that we may have to twist the system too much to get that.”

She added that she was not pleased when the new regime in Stockholm suggested that she should institute a new study programme in gender studies. “I thought that we were to have control over curriculum and hiring. Now we are not sure. There doesn’t seem to be any clear direction — just a lot of ad hoc actions.

“The ultimate danger, of course, with all this tugging and pulling that is going on,” said Ms Lundgren, “is that at a certain point administrators are going to say, okay, that’s it, we’re going to do things our way anyway.”

That is what seems to be taking place at Göteborg University, one of Sweden’s six universities — there are also 26 state-run university colleges — where Mr Ling is building a new highly-decentralised university in which most decision-making power has been invested in individual departments, making any attempt at regulation virtually impossible, and has risked Stockholm’s ire by creating new professorships with privately raised funds from Göteborg’s business sector.

“Mr Unckel allowed us at the university level to differentiate — a word I prefer to decentralise — and I promise you, we will continue to do so,” Mr Ling vowed.

Private plans stymied by ministers

Mr Tham has also drawn criticism by effectively undermining the privatisation of higher education institution by preventing it from buying the deeds to its land. The government’s thwarting of the attempt of Chalmers Institute of Technology in Göteborg shocked rector Anders Sjöberg. Mr Sjöberg, who has been rector for seven years, admits that he had not bargained for a confrontation with a future government when he decided to lead the institute into privatisation two years ago. “Freedom brings with it possibilities and risks, but this was an external risk I had not considered,” said the rector. Chalmers, one of the country’s two main technical universities, appears to be being punished for accepting the former, non-socialist government’s invitation to convert into a private foundation.

The Social Democrats’ block on the purchase was a blow to expansion plans, causing the postponement of a long-awaited micro-electronic centre. It has cast a pall over the Chalmers campus, with its 7,000 students and staff of 800.

In September 1992 Per Unckel, the reformist education minister in the previous coalition government, created the foundation alternative as part of his push to revitalise and diversify Sweden’s monolithic public higher education sector. Two formerly state-managed institutions would be allowed to become limited companies with their own capital funds and autonomous boards of trustees.

The Social Democrats, then in opposition, were strongly opposed, particularly to the fiscal means by which these conversions were to be accomplished: by using reservepension funds left over from the previous long-serving Social Democratic regime, as part of its long-term plan to give Swedish workers more control over the economy Mr Unckel proposed to use these monies to create a private higher education sector, which sent to Social Democrats into a rage.

“Mr Unckel used public monies for a private purpose,” said Carl Tham.

But Anders Sjöberg and the Chalmers administration leapt at the opportunity. “For a long time, we had argued that Chalmers, as a technical university, and one of only two of its kind in the country, ought to be a kind of ‘free school’,” said Mr Sjöberg.

“Every time we had wanted to get anything done — whether it be hiring someone, or crating a new course — it seemed that it took five or six years. So, when this chance came, we grabbed it.” In July 1994, the institute officially marked its transformation into a university foundation with a massive banquet.

A new era for Chalmers had begun. Instead, two months later, the Social Democrats were returned to power, and the Chalmers administration suddenly found itself in a bureaucratic twilight zone.

The school had been encouraged by the new government’s attitude until late June, when it became known that Stockholm was putting pressure on the Göteborg municipal government to block Chalmers’s pending request to buy its campus. “We do not feel that it is necessary for Chalmers,” said Mr. Carl Lindbergh, deputy secretary of state for education. “It can operate the same way that other schools in Sweden do — it can rent.”

Mr Sjöberg declared: “We will continue to fight for our own land.”