Student numbers in Sweden could be cut by 15,000 in three years, according to a senior official. Reductions in student numbers follow on from government cuts to higher education funding, among other developments.
Lennart Ståhle, chief of staff at the Swedish Agency for Higher Education, told the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter that announced reductions in the number of students could imply a cutback of 15,000 between now and 2015.
He was responding to a statement by Minister of Education Jan Björklund suggesting that the government could possibly delay the process of cutting student numbers.
The background to the cuts includes an expected 25% drop in the 20-year-old age cohort over the next six years; the discontinuation from 2013 of the allocation of austerity compensation (introduced in 2009) due to setbacks in the economy; a severe loss of students from outside Europe; and a reduced allocation to universities due to inactive students (those not producing enough credit points).
But according to the board of Uppsala University, the government is simultaneously allocating more funding to quality measures in the humanities, social sciences, law and theology.
“In Sweden we are reaching record numbers of applicants to our universities,” Uppsala Rector Eva Åkesson and Pro-rector Anders Malmberg, and Per Eriksson and Eva Wiberg of Lund University, wrote in an article in the Uppsala newspaper UNT.
“In this situation our government is reducing the volume of higher education in Sweden. Behind the rhetoric, which talks about an increased investment in quality and a necessary restructuring of a too-fragmented and dispersed higher education landscape, [measures have been introduced] that now are hitting also our front-line institutions internationally,” they argued.
In June the Swedish Association of University teachers published an extensive report demonstrating that the costs of running higher education institutions, notably salary increases, implied a 77% increase in funding since 1977.
This was compared to actual budget increases of between 23% and 45%, depending on academic field – meaning that the sector is under-financed by SEK6.75 billion (€750 million) if the level of governmental support is assumed to have been kept at the 1994 level.
In addition to hitting younger and smaller institutions, the funding cuts are affecting older, more established universities, which are being forced to reduce student intake at a time when application numbers are at an all-time high.
The academic senate at Uppsala University in June decided to cut the number of students by 1,600 in 2013. In the article in UNT, the rectors and pro-rectors of Uppsala and Lund universities said each institution could be forced to reduce the number of students by 2,000 in 2013-14.
“This reduction, which we now are forced to do, will lead us into difficult and time-consuming discussions about prioritisation and reform demands with our faculties and departments, who now will experience a reduction in funding.
“Above all, young people finishing secondary school and dreaming of a future will be hit hard,” they wrote.
It is not a large sum of money that is involved, the article stated, and Uppsala University is going to use some reserves. But the net loss of government funding is SEK15 million (€1.7 million) out of a total university budget of SEK5.3 billion (€590 million).
Eva Åkesson and the three rectors argue in the UNT article: “Even if we now say yes to quality instead of quantity, we cannot be blind to the [consequences of] the decrease in volume we now are forced to do. In total the reduction in study places in 2013 will be 20,000 to 30,000.”
Representatives from the social sciences and humanities at Uppsala said in a commentary in UNT that the cutbacks at that university could even be more severe than the university leadership had calculated.
The debate around lower intake due to reduced government funding has in turn revived the mergers debate.
Kåre Bremer, vice-chancellor of Stockholm University, argued on his blog that the announced reductions are understood by most people as a message to work harder for mergers of universities and university colleges.
The higher education agency’s Lennart Ståhle stated in the newspaper interview that many of the smaller among Sweden’s 34 higher education institutions “manage well economically, but in several cases questions can be raised about the quality of their study programmes”.
He then went on to name which institutions in particular should address the merger issue, arguing: “The government should point with the whole hand, instead of choosing the careful and soft line of just recommending core collaboration” between institutions.
But Rector Kerstin Norén of University College West in Trollhättan said to Dagens Nyheter that they had chosen not to work for a merger: “We are located 100 miles from the nearest college, with bad roads between us. I cannot see what we will gain from a merger, and I do not think that it will lead to more research grants.”
The cuts in student intake have further revived calls for discussion of the tuition fee question for students from outside Europe.
According to Åkesson, there is a need for “more grants, greater marketing efforts and less bureacracy in the regulations” governing non-EU international students.
And according to Ibrahim Baylan, a former minister and spokesperson for the Social Democratic party: “First we need significantly more grants. If that does not work, it could be necessary to remove the tuition fees. The Social Democratic party would do that.”
Swedish university leaders are now looking with great interest towards the announcement of the government budget in September.
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