Private plans stymied by ministers

August 25, 1995

Mr Tham has also drawn criticism by effectively undermining the privatisation of one 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 Goteborg shocked rector Anders Sjoberg.

Mr Sjoberg, 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 reserve pension 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 Social Democrats into a rage.

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

But Anders Sjoberg 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 Sjoberg.

"Every time we had wanted to get anything done - whether it be hiring someone, or creating 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 Goteborg 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 Sjoberg declared: "We will continue to fight for our own land."

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