Minister in storm after overriding university autonomy

Thirty-five university rectors, including the rectors of the major universities – Lund, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Uppsala, Chalmers University of Technology and the Karolinska Institute – as well as the Swedish National Union of Students have criticised the government for a decision which sets aside the principle of autonomy for universities.

It follows Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson’s announcement that Dalarna University must have a campus in both the neighbouring towns of Falun and Borlänge, against the recommendation of the university board’s investigation in 2015 to analyse the consequences of having all university operations on one campus (Falun) or keeping the operations on two campuses (Falun and Borlänge) as is currently the situation.

“We, the rectors of all universities and university colleges, call upon the government and the responsible minster to document the principal consequences of the announced decision and the long-term effects this type of governmental intervention risks having upon the academic quality of our higher education institutions,” the rectors said in a joint article in Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

They said the decision weakened the international reputation of Sweden as the autonomy of Swedish higher education institutions was now being questioned – including by the European University Association.

“The government is using its power in order to promote the interest of one municipality at the cost of one academic institution’s judgement of what is best for them,” the rectors said.

The National Union of Students, in a press statement, asked: “How does the government expect that higher education institutions shall be able to take the responsibility they are expected to have when the government does not make the necessary preconditions for this?” It said that detailed control by the ministry undermined the autonomy of higher education institutions, and demanded respect for the university autonomy reform of 1993.

Vice-Chancellor Marita Hilliges of Dalarna University said: “Normally, it is the university itself that decides on its organisation and questions of localisation by way of a governing board decision. Governing boards have been able to examine issues in a more than sufficient manner and to arrive at intelligent decisions.”

Minister responded

In a debate article in Svenska Dagbladet, Hellmark Knutsson said that “it is a question of [how] the whole of Sweden shall live”.

“The government has a total responsibility for the Swedish society. The government view is that a localisation to one place would have a negative effect upon the possibilities for higher education in Borlänge. Dalarna University was established in 1977. Since then campus Borlänge has built up close collaboration with the local business and industry through both education and research. The university activities in Borlänge have a marked industrial profile.

“The decision to have the continuation of university activities in Borlänge is in line with the governmental policy that public activities shall be found all over Sweden. When the whole of the country is active, Sweden becomes stronger,” she argued.

Mats Ericson, chairman of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers, said in the organisation’s membership journal Universitetsläraren: "It is remarkable that at least one minister is intervening and is running over a university board in this way. This does not correspond with the autonomy of higher education institutions.”

He said the view of his organisation’s 20,000 members was that the questions on how to run higher learning institutions, such as questions of leadership, internal organisation and localisation issues, should be decided upon in a way that is “transparent and as close to the staff and the students as possible”.

Strong reactions

Swedish TV reported that that the ministerial decision was explosive. “The question of localisation of Dalarna University has been going on for more than a year and has led to a fight between Falun and Borlänge,” TV2 stated.

Minister of Defence Peter Hultqvist, who previously was chairman of the Municipal Executive Committee of Borlänge from 1989 to 2006, when interviewed by the station, said that the university should be working for the whole region and hence be located in both places, and that when he was in charge he had worked very hard for the establishment of both campuses, in Falun and Borlänge.