Academics resist ‘industrial takeover’ of university

The intervention of Carola Lemne, director-general of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise or CSE and head of the board of Uppsala University, into the intense public discussion on how universities shall be governed has provoked a strong protest among staff and students at her university.

The CSE published a controversial report in favour of weakening staff and student influence over the election of rectors and since then Uppsala University has drafted new regulations for the selection process for a new rector, which staff and students see as a way of securing an “industrial takeover” of the university.

“The fight for a new election procedure for electing the rector of Uppsala University is the bottom line regarding the introduction of academic capitalism in Sweden,” Ylva Hesselberg, professor of economic history at Uppsala University, wrote in Dagens Nyheter. “Universities are loosened up from government funding and forced to be run as companies while knowledge is looked upon as a commodity that is sold at the market.”

Professor Emeritus Leif Lewin of Uppsala University said: “The objective of universities is not to realise the policies of the government or contribute to profit for the owner as companies do.”

The critique of Lemne gained momentum after the meeting of the Uppsala University board on 15 September when a note was presented discussing a revised model for selecting the university rector.

Among the background papers to this note were two references to the controversial report written by a research committee in the CSE, arguing that the current method of electing rectors by a congregation of academic and administrative staff, labour unions and students does not produce strong governance. It says the electorate is a “strong but unhealthy force that must be broken”.

“The fact is that Swedish universities are receiving SEK66.7 billion (US$7.4 billion) from the government each year. That these resources now are a temptation for private capital is beyond doubt,” Hesselberg argued.

“To control a major university with highly qualified and creative people is a fascinating thought, not least because many of the larger universities are also sitting on a large accumulation of capital assets. Who needs to establish a think-tank when you have access to a university?”

In Lemne’s proposal for the board it is said that a “recruitment committee” established by the senate shall be mandated to nominate two candidates for the rector position and set up two “hearing congregations” that would assist the recruitment committee. The academic senate hence would become an advisory body with no decisive power over who shall become the university rector. In this way the students would also lose real influence.

“The system of today is not perfect,” Hesselberg argued, but a severe price would be paid if the CSE was allowed to “torpedo” the system at Uppsala University.

Growing discontent

Before the meeting of the board of Uppsala University on 26 October, discontent was growing among staff and students where 859 professors, researchers and PhD students signed a petition demanding that the new regulations on how to elect a rector should go out to the faculties and student bodies for comment. Also, the faculties sent in letters demanding wider consultations before taking any decisions.

The critics said that Lemne had difficulties in balancing which “hats she had on her head”, mixing up her position as head of CSE with that of being head of the Uppsala University board.

Lemne characterised the critique as “conspiratorial theories”, and said that her proposal for the board was not meant as a decision document.

Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson said that the government does not share the position of the research committee of CSE.

“We see no gains by reducing the influence of the staff and students; on the contrary we look upon this as a guarantee for quality,” she said.

When asked, she confirmed that she still had confidence in Lemne.

At the board meeting it was decided that a new procedure, not very different from that used when the sitting rector, Eva Åkesson, was elected should be sent out to the faculties and the students for comment.

Student representative Caisa Lycken told the Uppsala student newsletter, Ergo, that she did not think that the influence of the students would be weakened by the new proposal for regulating the selection of a new rector.

Eva Åkesson sent out a message that she is prepared to prolong her period as rector for 2018-20 if the university should want her to.