Sweden drops language of competition

Robert Appelbaum on the war of words that preceded the withdrawal of plans to privatise universities

November 14, 2013

At the end of October, Sweden’s centre-right government decided to withdraw a proposal to privatise the country’s universities.

Details of the plans had been circulated to get feedback from universities, and it was hoped that they would pass into law by July 2014.

However, the government is going back to the drawing board, and many working in higher education are, for now at least, breathing a sigh of relief.

There is no doubt that such a change in the status of universities would have a real impact on people’s lives, but the battle that has taken place has also been one of words.

Among supporters of privatisation, the bill has been discussed in terms of “autonomy-reform”; among detractors, the talk has been about “businessification”.

The government, a minority coalition headed by the Moderate Party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt, argued that universities needed this “reform” because they were now “global players” facing “increasingly fierce competition”.

They needed to be “agile” in order to “conduct business abroad” and to enter into “consortia”, it said.

As “separate legal entities”, universities would be able to “enter into contracts…receive and manage donations, own companies and build their own financial resources”.

The plan’s detractors invoked a very different kind of language.

In an open letter to a leading newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, 36 academics argued that universities were a “common, public affair”, and ought to remain so.

As for the impact of globalisation, the authors of the letter pointed out that universities thrive in a “universal sphere” of “international knowledge”.

The government’s proposals would create “limited holding companies” and thus undermine the integrity of universities’ work and the role they play in democracy, as well as jeopardising “freedom of expression”.

I know which choice of language I prefer – the latter. But in the arguments of both camps, something is left unsaid.

On the face of it, Swedish universities perform at a very high standard and are well funded and run, so it is not clear what the government is panicking about.

But it is also true that Swedish universities as chartered today face restrictions that many of the world’s leading institutions do not.

For example, public universities in Sweden cannot own property because they are deemed to be owned by the state.

Underpinning the language used by the government is the ideology of neoliberalism, complete with the usual calls for the reduction of public functions and hysteria about the future.

The responses of academics, meanwhile, have been couched in terms of Swedish socialism.

But this has had little bearing on the withdrawal of the proposal.

The plans were pulled because, under close scrutiny, they were found to be clearly unworkable.

The proposed legislation would make universities autonomous but uncapitalised entities run at the whim of central government. It would grant them autonomy without autonomy.

The government has vowed to revise and resubmit its plans. By the time those are ready, however, the government is likely to be out of office. In the next general election, in September 2014, the anti-privatisation Social Democrats are predicted to prevail.

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