Private universities? It is not completely unthinkable that the government will let educational institutions become foundations. Fact is that it might have become a reality for Lund University within a year. It is not clear what would happen with the students’ influence in that case. The question is if students even care?
June 2013. It is high summer and students are leaving Lund for a well needed vacation away from academia, and so are the headmasters of the University house. So it is not strange that the odd curse can be heard when June turns into July and the Ministry of Education and Research presents the proposition of giving Sweden’s universities and university colleges the choice to become university foundations.
In short: By becoming foundations, the institutions can be automatically privatized instead of remaining under the heavy hand of government as they are today – and this can all be changed by July 2014.
Any curses would not mainly be directed at the proposition in itself. Universities and university colleges have long dreamt about a greater autonomy, in order to be richer and freer, without having their hands tied by the complicated laws and bureaucracy of the government. The proposition is not completely unexpected either, it was hinted at in the 2012 Budget Bill. The problem is that the proposition is being presented right before vacation times. A comment letter should be written, signed and sent as early as October.
The proposition in itself is not very big. The Ministry of Education and Research has written about 136 pages, which is surprisingly short – but the pages may carry the power to fundamentally change the universities and university colleges of Sweden.
The great educational institutions of Sweden, like Lund University, may finally have the chance to put the pedal to the metal and become a Swedish Berkeley or Stanford. But at the same time teachers and students have a lot of rights and interests that cannot be taken for granted.
It is not the first time that Swedish universities and university colleges are facing privatization. It already happened in Jönköping and Gothenburg 20 years ago, when another right-wing government had been elected and was trying to privatize the country that the Social Democrats had run. The newly elected Prime Minister Carl Bildt opened his government statement by announcing that “The time of collectivism is over. Society will always be bigger than government in our Sweden.”
At that time, the newly appointed Minister of Education, Per Unckel, presented a vision to set Swedish universities and university colleges free and reshape them into foundations. Chalmers in Gothenburg and the university college of Jönköping were interested, and became test pilots for the foundation form in 1994.
Bildt’s government only had three years before the Social Democrats retook the government, and the vision of educational institutions with autonomy disappeared at the same time. While many of the privatization dreams of the right-wing government of 1994 just remained dreams, Reinfeldt’s government have made those dreams a reality. Alcohol and pharmacies, as well as the railroad monopoly of SJ have been privatized – and now the universities and university colleges, the very core of educated society, may be as well.
Even if Chalmers and Jönköping’s foundation form are somewhat different compared to the current proposition, a lot is similar. There is a lot of weight on being able to accumulate funds, owning and managing property, and the freedom to run their organization as they wish.
Even if it sounds risky, there is a whole lot of prestige to be had which is tempting to educational institutions like Lund university – like the thought of becoming a world-class university, with challenging research partnerships and the potential Nobel prizes they might bring.
Abandoning the government for personal freedom is an international trend, which our closest neighbors like Denmark and Finland are joining. The autonomy has been a given for the most prestigious universities in USA, Japan and the UK for a long time. The universities of these countries are also the ones topping ranking lists as the most prestigious of the world.
When the magazine Times Higher Education once again presented their highly esteemed list of the highest ranking universities of the world in March 2013, Lund University can be found at a modest place around 80. When it came to reputation, Lund barely made the top 100. For a university with high ambitions, this is not pleasing news.
When Phil Baty, the chief editor of Times Higher Education, is interviewed by Lundagård in the same spring (3/2013), he thinks the economic structure is one of the reasons for Sweden’s low placements.
“A very equal funding is a problem in all Nordic countries. This is completely opposite to the trend in other countries. Their universities focus their support on one group in order to make that particular group reach world-class status. That is a good way to catch an investor’s interest.”
Phil Baty wants to point out that Lund University has a worse reputation than it deserves. A university might do things like support the local labour market, which would not show in the world ranking. But progress in research and international recognition will show on the world ranking, which students will then use as a guide to decide where to study and do research. The possibilities of investments will be essential for hiring the superstars of the research world.
“We can see that universities that are divorced from the government are doing well. A lot of universities in Europe are weighted down by bureaucracy, which doesn’t benefit them. They need academical freedom, so that the staff is free to think outside the box,” Phil Baty says.
The economical possibilities go hand in hand with the political freedoms. The money that can be gained by owning their own property is tempting, not to speak of the possibilities that smoothly arranged international cooperations would bring. The limitations of the university as an institution has made headmaster Per Eriksson cautiously positive to the proposition of The Ministry of Education and Research. But at the same time he is aware of a lot of limitations.
“How do you secure the student influence? And how sure can a staff member be that their position would remain the same after changing from an institution to a foundation? Those are probably the two main questions that have surfaced,” Per Eriksson says in a press conference in his office in mid-September.
The student unions are concerned that the student influence might be negatively affected. There are no clear guidelines for its preservation in the proposition, only that it should remain largely as it is today. But according to the proposition, the universities and the student unions will have to agree on student influence on their own. The student unions want the student influence to be regulated by law in order to secure the interests of the students. But the headmaster wants to ease the worry.
“We have a culture of a large student influence here in Lund, and that will not be regulated, whether we are state-owned or not. A lot of it will still depend on a good cooperation between the university board and the student unions.”
Even though the headmaster has criticized the actions of the government in other areas, he is now grateful that they want to solve the bureaucratic issues using this proposition. While in his magnificent office in the University House, he cannot avoid mentioning prestigious giants like Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, and Berkeley, the idols that Lund want to emulate.
“They are the greatest universities of the world, and giants in the research world. At the same time, students who go there for their education have access to an enormous competence,” Per Eriksson says.
With the economical muscles pumped and the bureaucratic knots loosened, the road to becoming the head of Swedish universities, the team that will dare to take their place and make an impact on Swedish research, should be open to Lund University. The universities that choose not to accept the proposition might then risk finding themselves accepting being outrun.
It is an ideological question. Jack Lantz of the Social Democrat student club of Lund, LSSK, says this. He has fiercely attacked the foundation proposition.
“The foundation question is motivated with ideological words like freedom and autonomy, and partly by the thought that universities would do better in the international competition. But that is easily refuted by earlier autonomy investigations by the government, that show that the difficulties of the universities can be solved without turning universities into foundations. You can change the laws about how this kind of institution can act on the international market,” Jack Lantz says.
Jonatan Macznik, liberal, agrees that it is an ideological question and thinks that universities should be more divorced from the government.
“There is a point to universities having the possibility and the position to be a free and critical voice to society. Then there are additional benefits to a foundation proposition, like the part about contract writing and the ability to make more independent decisions than today. To the greatest extent possible, politics should not dictate all the decisions,” Jonatan Macznik says.
At the same time, Jack Lantz is concerned about what would happen to subjects that might be considered less worthy of investments. It is already noticeable that subjects in medicine, technology and natural science are being economically strengthened to a greater degree both by the government and external sources. He is concerned that subjects like humanities and social science might be completely set aside if Lund University is privatized.
“The foundation proposition makes a lot of opportunities for private financial incentives, more contract teaching, and more opportunities to have profit-driven activities. At the same time, you close off a lot of opportunities for politicians to control educations and education seats. That might mean that you lose the large diversity that large universities like Lund have, for example if humanities don’t become as profitable,” Jack Lantz says.
Jonatan Macznik is not as concerned about that risk. He wants to put greater focus on the long-term benefits instead.
“With this proposition, the government will still grant funds to higher education, and will be able to fund more. University foundations will be better protected against large budget cuts than they are today. But it is important to make sure that universities will have more freedom to decide what to research and what to conduct.”
But there is one question that seems to unite the Social Democrat and the People’s Party supporter – the student influence question, which should be largely kept intact, according to the proposition from the government. The same ‘largely’ is what worries the student unions, whose worries headmaster Per Eriksson wants to subdue.
“The students’ power and influence over educations in the future feels a little worrying. The proposition is largely about transferring power from the government to the universities. But then you wonder who the power is transferred to, who the autonomy is for,” Jack Lantz muses and continues:
“They don’t write anything about what the student influence should look like in this entire memorandum, only that it should look largely the same as today. With the foundation form, the universities will get a whole new structure with the education being run in organizations, and then how will the students get any representation? I feel like there’s a great risk that these will be very top-down organizations.”
The student influence, or the lack of it in the proposition, is also something that Lund’s Student Unions, Lus, have put extra weight on in their referral investigation. Lus, as a focus group, will investigate the proposition, and their views and opinions will be added to Lund’s response to the government. Peter Honeth, the State Secretary of The Ministry of Education and Research, and one of the front spokesmen for the foundation form, has said that the student influence is something that each university and student union will have to decide on their own – something Lus considers problematic.
“The student unions haven’t taken a stance in the foundation question. But it is important to the unions that the student influence doesn’t worsen compared to how it functions today. It’s important that the student influence is regulated by law, and not by deals between universities and unions. When you read the proposition, you see that is says that the influence should be largely the same, but now how. Of course, this is upsetting,” Clara Lundblad, the head of Lus, says.
Apart from the student influence, there are additional gaps that the 136 pages do not answer. What about the legal certainty of students? Will they still be insured? What consequences would the foundation proposition have for the job security of doctoral candidates?
“A lot is regulated by the Administrative Procedure Act, the Higher Education act, and the Higher Education Ordinance today. According to the foundation proposition, roughly the same principles should be in effect, but there’s nothing about how they should be regulated. There are no tangible amendment suggestions. The proposition isn’t long at all in relation to how much there is to discuss,” Clara Lundblad says.
In Lund, the summer has turned to autumn. A debate is arranged at Café Athen in Lund. The Sydsvenskan journalist and moderator Andreas Ekström talks away, trying to blow some life into the university foundation question, a subject that does not seem to have much of a spark according to the general populace.
“The government or foundation question is very exciting. I’ve tried to explain to people who don’t know everything about the university world why this is a hot topic. But I think a lot of you in this room have enough knowledge to understand,” Andreas Ekström explains.
He is right about that, maybe in a dull way. The chief mourners are in the audience. Professors, doctors, student union people and the headmasters of other universities. Students do not seem keen on attending.
Peter Honeth is there and is the big shot of the debate, present to be pressed for answers about responsibility. He has booked this evening as a part of a charm offensive to convince educational institutions that the university foundation proposition is an offer worth thinking about.
And a lot of people seem to get something to think about. There are a lot of questions about how to secure funding, about who will run the show and if it is right that Lund University would outrun its family of smaller universities. Not to mention the importance of collegial cooperation, the openness and the possibility for universities to own property.
But the questions get their answers, whether the audience appreciates them or not. Except the questions about student influence. No wonder there, since no one bothers to ask a proper question about it.
As soon as next summer, Lund University’s position as an institution might be a part of the past. Then one of Sweden’s prime educational institutions might have been privatized, and a lot of the work surrounding this change is taking place behind the scenes, far from the everyday problems of the students. It is probably impossible to predict or perceive the consequences of the decision before it has been made. And there is no turning back after that, according to Peter Honeth:
“No, and that’s one of the advantages. The advantages of a foundation is that it is difficult to change and long-lasting. I think that agrees with the role of universities in society. It should not be easy for the government or any other outside force to change it.”