Norwegian Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen was probably looking forward to the weekend after a rough week in Parliament. He had to answer for how and why the state granted millions in state funding to the private school Westerdals, which didn’t qualify for it.
Isaksen was among those grilled at a parliamentary hearing on the scandal at Westerdals, which is now being ordered to repay NOK 56 million in funding to which it was not entitled.
Isaksen began his testimony by admitting that his ministry simply didn’t do its job, and he promised much stricter monitoring of private schools in the future.
His predecessors arguably failed to oversee Westerdals’ owners as well. They include two brothers from one of Norway’s most prominent families, the Løvenskiolds, whose school administration also charged students tuition fees that were way too high for several years.
Isaksen, though, is the one who was in charge when the Løvenskiolds notified the ministry of their intention to merge three of the schools they ran (Westerdals, NISS and NITH) into one large new school also called Westerdals. The merger was orchestrated through the Løvenskiolds’ Oslo-based company Anthon B Nilsen, and the ministry was informed that the owners then planned to transfer NOK 105 million from the schools to Anthon B Nilsen and withdraw the money as dividends. Ministry didn’t follow that up and the owners thus argued that they thought it was allowed.
Isaksen conceded that the ministry should have asked many more questions, and the transaction resulting in dividends later proved to be illegal. Nicolai Løvenskiold denied at the hearing that the funds transfer was an attempt to get around laws that prohibit schools that receive state funding from paying out dividends.
Officials from the state student loan agency Statens Lånekassen, meanwhile, claim Westerdals’ officials have “violated their duty to deliver correct information” about the nature of their programs. As a result, students received financial aid for programs that also did not qualify.
Lånekassen has turned the case over to police, while students who paid excessive tuition look set to file a class action lawsuit seeking compensation. The legal action is planned after negotiations between the students’ lawyers and Westerdals didn’t result in any settlement.
Isaksen has said he expects Westerdals to refund the students’ money, as do their lawyers, but Løvenskiold wasn’t making any promises. “We want to find good solutions with the education minstry, first and foremost,” he told reporters after the hearing. “We’ll be working with them for at least the next 15 to 30 years.”
Løvenskiold refused to say whether he feels any obligation to the students who were overcharged, saying only that “we are in a process” with former students that he couldn’t comment on further. Løvenskiold, meanwhile, has resigned as managing director of Anthon B Nilsen Utdanning, which owns the now-merged school that’s also called Westerdals, but which also hasn’t seemed willing to accept responsibility for decisions made earlier at the three schools that were merged. Both students and education authorities are left feeling cheated, and having to pursue compensation claims.