One of Oslo’s major private schools, Westerdals, has admitted that it charged tuition fees for many years that were nearly twice what they should have been. The school also received state subsidies for programs that lacked state approval, and can expect a stream of compensation claims.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), which first revealed a string of irregularities at Westerdals last fall after the school’s owner had completed some questionable mergers, reported Monday that new administrators at the school are now apologizing and claiming they will make improvements.
Officials at the state education ministry, meanwhile, confirmed to DN that they are “in dialogue” about the Westerdals case with the state police’s white-collar crime unit Økokrim. State officials have also been criticized for having done a poor job of overseeing Westerdals’ financing and curriculum and last week, the Parliament’s disciplinary committee scheduled a hearing on the case. Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen of the Conservative Party is due to be called in for questioning, along with his predecessor, Kristin Halvorsen from the Socialist Left party (SV), and the school’s owner.
The confirmation of overcharging and wrongly claiming state subsidy comes after the school itself investigated and uncovered irregularities over a period of many years. The former, and well-regarded, Westerdals School of Communication charged higher fees than state regulations allowed between 2002 and 2012. Instead of charging a maximum of a 25 percent of its state subsidy, which would have amounted to NOK 27,500 per year in 2010, for example, around 400 students paid an average of NOK 56,600.
Westerdals School of Communication merged with two others , NITH and NISS, to form Westerdals Oslo ACT in 2014. The school is owned by the Oslo-based firm Anthon B Nilsen, which in turn is owned by brothers Peder and Nicolai Løvenskiold of the wealthy family that’s descended from the closest Norway has had to nobility. The two Løvenskiold brothers control Anthon B Nilsen, which also operates private schools such as Bjørknes, Treider and NKI, along with the foundation Reidar and Gunnar Holsts Legat. They all faced harsh criticism when DN reported last fall how they had taken out more than NOK 10o million in dividends in connection with the merger. Anthon B Nilsen later repaid a total of NOK 105 million to the new Westerdals Oslo ACT. The parliamentary committee is set to call in Nicolai Løvenskiold for questioning, while a spokesman for Anthon B Nilsen had no comment on the upcoming hearing.
Now the school has new administrators and they’re admitting to serious problems just weeks after taking over. “The school took higher fees than the education ministry and directorate believes they should have without dispensation,” acknowledged Kristin Arnesen, new director of studies at Westerdals Oslo ACT, to DN on Monday. DN reported that the former administration had sought dispensation once, in 2008, to charge fees that were higher than allowed but failed to receive an answer from the education directorate and failed to follow up.
The higher fees were charged anyway, for around 10 years: “It’s easy to see in hindsight,” claimed spokesman for Anthon B Nilsen, Trond Andresen, to DN, “that dispensation should have been sought earlier and that the application (in 2008) should have been followed up more actively.” Andresen stressed that the school never tried to hide the level of fees it charged, though, and that they were included in reports sent to the state school authorities.
The authorities themselves have also admitted to erroneously failing to process the application, and to suspecting that Westerdals was charging fees that were too high but making no efforts to investigate or halt the overcharging. Other private schools, claimed one official, were seen as posing a higher risk and they were subjected to monitoring, not Westerdals.
Commentator Eva Grinde in DN wrote on Monday that the “scandal” at Westerdals was a result of “greedy owners, incompetent leadership and total neglect by the state.” The losers, she wrote, are the students.
“I want to apologize in the strongest of terms for what’s come forth about the earlier school,” Westerdals’ new rector, Tine Widerøe, told DN. She took over as head of Westerdals on March 1 and promised that “we will do all we can to clean up.” She took the school’s own findings to the education ministry after just six days on the job, disclosing not just the overcharging but also how the school received subsidy and allowed students to qualify for student loans for study programs that weren’t approved by state authorities. Among them were the so-called “Studio 3D” program and “Scenografi og event” that was part of Westerals’ Art Direction line of studies.
“This is an incredibly sad situation for students and employees, but it’s necessary (to disclose all the irregularities) in order to rebuild confidence both internally and externally,” Widerøe told DN. She shared the same report she turned over to the state with DN‘s reporters.
Westerdals must now brace for compensation claims both from the state and from students who were overcharged, and likely had to take up much higher student loans than they should have. “If claims come in, we will evaluate them,” Widerøe said.
State officials wouldn’t say whether they plan to report Westerdals to Økokrim, the white-collar crime unit, for fraud. A prosecutor at Økokrim has earlier state that if “conscious tricks” were carried out by Westerdals’ owners and adminstrators, they would amount to fraud punishable under law.