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EDUCATION

Sweden’s pioneering for-profit ‘free schools’ under fire

Thirty years after their introduction, Sweden is a world leader of "free schools" owned by for-profit companies that pay dividends to shareholders -- a business model hotly debated ahead of the general election on September 11, 2022.

Sweden's pioneering for-profit 'free schools' under fire
Students attend a class at the Drottning Blanka secondary school in Järfälla, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

In a Stockholm suburb, the Drottning Blanka secondary school premises look more like an office space than your traditional red-brick institution with a schoolyard and gymnasium.

Like many of Sweden’s “free schools”, it doesn’t have its own building — instead, it rents a commercial space alongside other companies.

Here, performance is not just about how students do in exams.

“Free schools” owned by for-profit companies that pay dividends to shareholders are a business model hotly debated ahead of Sunday’s general election.

Drottning Blanka’s senior high school in Järfälla, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

Almost a fifth of pupils in Sweden attend one of the country’s 3,900 primary and secondary “free schools”, first introduced in the country in the early 1990s.

Known elsewhere as voucher or charter schools, Sweden is a world leader in this type of schooling, which offers broader educational choice but still follows the Swedish curriculum.

Around three-quarters of “free schools” are owned by public limited companies and are for-profit, according to official statistics.

The remainder are either non-profit or run by foundations.

But in egalitarian Sweden, in order to ensure the “free schools” are accessible to all, they are 100 percent state-funded.

‘Party’s over’

Critics of the model decry the fact that taxpayer money intended for children’s education ends up in shareholders’ pockets.

“The party is over. The money from your taxes must go to schools, not to company profits,” thundered Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in July.

She wants to put an end to “free schools” paying out dividends. Schools that do make profits should instead reinvest them in their establishments, she argues.

“The quest for profits in Swedish schools must end,” insisted Andersson, who is seeking the Social Democrats’ third straight mandate in the election.

Conceived as a right-wing reform in 1992 and supported by successive left and right governments since then, proponents of the system initially thought it would pave the way for a few schools run by individuals passionate about education.

Little did they know that it would give rise to a bevy of schools owned by private companies often listed on the stock exchange, such as AcadeMedia, Sweden’s biggest education group with annual revenues of over $1 billion (one billion euros).

The group recently announced — in the midst of the election campaign — that it would dish out 185 million kronor ($17 million) in dividends to shareholders, or about a quarter of its profits.

School Principal Pia Johansson poses for a photo at the Drottning Blankas secondary school in Jarfalla, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

In the capital’s Järfälla suburb, principal Pia Johansson says her school’s parent company, Drottning Blanka AB which runs 27 establishments and belongs to AcadeMedia, has a profit margin target of six percent.

She’s opposed to a ban on dividends. “It’s like any other business: people invest money, large sums of money,” she says.

“It’s natural that investors want some of the profit,” she adds, acknowledging however that there “maybe should be some kind of limit”.

That’s the approach preferred by the leader of the opposition conservative Moderates, Ulf Kristersson, who is challenging Andersson for the role of prime minister on Sunday.

“I’ve always said that dividends at well-run school groups are not a problem for Sweden. I’m much more concerned about the bad state-run schools,” he said after AcadeMedia announced its dividend payout.

His party has called for dividend caps on schools that “perform poorly” academically.

Dividend ban?

While a large majority of Swedes are in favour of “free schools”, most are opposed to them turning huge profits, opinion polls show.

Prime Minister Andersson in July appointed a special rapporteur to draw up proposals on how to move forward with a ban on dividends from schools.

The issue is tricky, as existing shareholders would likely demand costly compensation.

Detractors of the for-profit system say the model attracts irresponsible actors, and encourages owners to cut costs to maximise profits and inflate students’ grades in order to bring in “clients”.

Marcus Strömberg, AcadeMedia’s chief executive, insists, however, that profits are necessary.

A company’s budget surplus enables it to invest in and develop its educational operations and provide “security for students”, as well as “create more school places”, he told AFP.

By AFP’s Karine Pfenniger

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SWEDEN ELECTS

Sweden Elects: New finance minister under fire after first long interview

In our weekly Sweden Elects newsletter, The Local's editor Emma Löfgren explains the key events to keep an eye on in Swedish politics this week.

Sweden Elects: New finance minister under fire after first long interview

Hej,

Elisabeth Svantesson has given her first long interview as finance minister, speaking to the Svenska Dagbladet daily just days after she presented her first budget on behalf of Sweden’s new, right-wing government.

The government has already faced accusations of deprioritising the climate crisis, and Svantesson conceded in the interview that its planned investment in nuclear power (which is a low-emission source of energy, but takes time to develop, so it pays off only in the long run) would also make it difficult to reach Sweden’s climate targets within the next decade.

Asked what will happen if Sweden does not meet its Agenda 2030 target, the sustainable development targets agreed by the United Nations, by that year, she said: “It would mean that we don’t meet the targets. If we don’t we don’t, but our ambition is to steer towards that goal.”

That quote, which was perceived as far more laissez-faire than the situation warrants, was met with criticism from the opposition.

“I’m astounded at how you sign agreements and vote for legislation in parliament only to ignore it when you feel like it,” said Green Party leader Per Bolund.

The Social Democrats’ former finance minister Mikael Damberg gave a diplomatic-or-patronising answer (a school of conflict avoidance that can be perfected only by a party that’s more used to being in power than not being in power) and guessed that Svantesson had perhaps not meant it like that. “Svantesson has had a lot to do this week, maybe she’s tired.”

Speaking of interviews, one Swedish newsroom has not yet been getting them, at least not with senior ministers. One of public broadcaster SVT’s top political interviewers, Anders Holmberg, points out that all four right-wing party leaders and several ministers have declined to appear on his “30 minuter”, a show famous for putting hard-hitting questions to politicians and senior decision-makers. It’s of course not mandatory to say yes to all interviews even as a politician, but it’s an unusual move.

It’s interesting that Bolund tried to attack Svantesson specifically on not following through on commitments. This has been a recurring piece of criticism since the new government was elected two months ago.

The budget was more conservative (in this particular case I mean conservative as in cautious rather than as in right-wing) than you might have expected based on the government’s election pledges, and it’s not the only campaign promise that they’ve been forced to backtrack on.

“The central thing is that they’re breaking most of their major election promises at the same time as as they’re not really managing to take care of the big social problems Sweden faces today,” Damberg told SVT.

To be fair, you would kind of expect him to say this (when has a political opposition party ever praised the government’s budget?), but significantly, the criticism hasn’t only come from the left-wing opposition.

Moderate Party politicians in the powerful Skåne region earlier this month slammed their party for failing to deliver the promised support to those suffering sky high power bills in the southern Swedish county.

“There are effectively no reforms, and they’re not putting in place the policies they campaigned for in the election,” the head of the liberal think tank Timbro told the Aftonbladet newspaper about the budget.

It will be interesting to see whether the label as “promise breakers” sticks, and whether that will affect the right-wing parties in the next election.

Did you know?

Parties make more and more pledges during election campaigns. Ahead of the 2014 election, a whopping 1,848 vallöften (election promises) were made, according to research by Gothenburg University, up from 326 in 1994.

You may not believe this, because the stereotypical image of the dishonest politician perhaps unfairly endures, but research shows that most politicians keep most of their election promises most of the time.

Swedish parties in a single-party government and coalition governments with a joint manifesto tend to deliver on between 80 and 90 percent of their vallöften, according to political scientist Elin Naurin. For coalition governments without a joint manifesto, it ranges from 50 to 70 percent.

In other news

the deputy mayor of the town of Norrtälje, who got 15 seconds – technically 26 seconds – of fame after he was left speechless when a reporter asked him to defend hefty pay rises for top councillors has resigned, saying he wants to take responsibility for what happened.

He also told SVT about his long and very awkward silence on camera that his brain had simply blacked out after having worked for 13 hours straight and gone nine hours without food in the post-election frenzy.

Sweden Elects is a weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues after the Swedish election. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive the column as a newsletter in their email inbox each week. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.

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