Swedish university shake-up

December 12, 1997

SWEDISH universities are braced for a management shakeup that will strengthen the government's grip on top posts in the new year.

Legislation comes into force on January 1 that will alter the boards of Sweden's 36 universities and university colleges, and change staff recruitment and career development. It will also affect the way research funds are distributed from January 1 1999.

The Social Democratic government is already pumping extra money into higher education to support a 20 per cent growth in student places and more research. Much of the extra cash comes from the investment proceeds of wage-earners' funds.

Education minister Carl Tham said: "The vice chancellor or rector is the executive director of the university or university college and will be in the future.

"We are putting another person on top as chair of the board, which we think is reasonable. There are also practical reasons. The chair puts forward all the suggestions. We also feel it is a good idea to broaden the number of contacts with society at large, so if you have persons with other activities in their daily lives that could also help the universities."

The chairmen or women will come from industry and other walks of life; people with positions in society and with many contacts, academics at other university colleges, civil servants. They will not be politicians involved with education nationally or locally.

"Some of the vice chancellors have been very upset about this proposal, but it's normal procedure in almost every other part of society that you have someone else in charge of the board," Mr Tham said.

"In practice, there will be strong support for the vice chancellors, because there will be another person to back vice chancellors when they have to take decisions."

But Thorsten Nybom, director of the Council for Studies of Higher Education in Stockholm, which comprises university and university college rectors, said that the government planned to appoint not only the chairs of the boards but also the rectors.

"The reform is half-baked with this double command, the government-appointed chair and the government-appointed rector," he said, admitting that he is often in a majority of one. "The natural thing would be to appoint a chair and leave it to the board to decide who the rector is.

"The board can't even ask the rector to resign - what can they do if they answer, 'I am appointed by the government, so I will sit here for another five years, and you can't do anything about it'?" Research funding is another bone of contention. The government wants to unlock wage-earners' funds, which have been invested in stocks and shares for 20 years, and invest the proceeds to research.

"The research councils will get funding from the wage-earners' funds - enormous resources will now be transferred from them. In total, Swedish research gets more public money this year and next year than ever before," Mr Tham said.

Many research projects receive support from industry. Money also comes from private sources such as the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, which funds expensive equipment for use in basic research to the tune of about SKr550 million (Pounds 43 million) a year, and the Cancer Foundation, which disburses about SKr230 million a year.

Funding for universities and university colleges will rise substantially, with more than SKr3 billion in extra permanent resources going direct to universities over four years for both education and research.

Mr Tham said: "Altogether, an enormous amount of money is being poured into Swedish research."

Student numbers have risen 50 per cent to about 300,000 in the 1990s. A further 60,000 new student places will be created by the year 2000. "We think this is the way to create better employment opportunities and to increase growth in the economy, since you have a more qualified labour force," Mr Tham said.

But Mr Nybom warns that the government's aim of getting 35 per cent of school pupils into higher education is too ambitious. "If you believe you can fund a higher education system with 35 per cent going to a university at the level of Oxford or Cambridge, you're in trouble," he said.

"You'll wake up and find the economic situation is absolutely appalling, or the taxpayers won't allow it, or you have deceived a generation or two of students whom you promised an elite higher education and they have not even got a decent education."

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