Swedish universities are looking to build on the first signs of recovery in the international student market, following the collapse in overseas applications when ‘full-cost’ tuition fees were introduced for non-European students in 2011. But they face a massive uphill task.
Many feel more should be done to sweeten the attractiveness of Sweden’s higher education, with improved scholarships, greater flexibility in the application process and liberalisation of the post-study work environment.
The number of international applicants fell dramatically, from 132,000 in 2010 to 15,000 in 2011, as University World News reported two years ago.
This was after students from outside the European Union and European Economic Area – EU-EEA – were told to find around €10,000 (US$13,300) a year to study for a bachelor or masters degree at a Swedish university – or apply for one of the very limited scholarships that the government introduced to try to soften the blow.
At a stroke, for thousands of Indian, Pakistani, African and Chinese students, the cost of fees for studying in Sweden became almost the same as going to a British or American university.
The result was a fall of 79% in newly enrolled non-EU students for the start of the 2011-12 academic year – a drop from 7,600 to just 1,600, according to the Higher Education in Sweden – 2013 status report, published by the Swedish Higher Education Authority.
Numbers did recover in 2012, but only by a meagre 7% and meant that just 1,700 ‘free-mover’ students from outside the EU-EEA started degrees in Sweden last autumn.
Huge impact on masters degrees
This has had a huge impact on Sweden’s rapidly expanding two-year international masters degrees, which the country’s universities had spent a decade developing in line with the Bologna system. With teaching in English, they hoped to satisfy growing local and global demand and were helping to make Swedish universities important international players.
Universities were able to expand their postgraduate provision, particularly in economically important areas of science and engineering, by attracting considerable numbers of Pakistani, Chinese and Indian students prior to 2011.
A large number were graduates from British universities, enticed by the Swedish offer of high quality, well-resourced postgraduate education and free tuition. Suddenly, the flow of suitably qualified overseas recruits was turned off.
And so institutions like Linköping (LiU) in south-east Sweden, Lund and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm have been forced to beef up their limited marketing resources and compete in the increasingly competitive global higher education market having lost one of their trump cards: free education.
A spokesperson at KTH said: “We’ve boosted our public relations and marketing activities and are prioritising our strategic marketing efforts in regions like China, India, South East Asia and Brazil.”
Thankfully for Swedish universities, PhD students from outside Europe can still study for free. And, of course, Swedish and other EU-EEA students can still study for free at all levels.
Sweden’s fees for students from outside Europe followed a similar move by Denmark in 2006, when non-EU-EEA student numbers fell from 1,528 in 2005 to 995 in 2006 – a 33% decline. Danish universities saw a brief recovery in 2008-09 but then numbers fell back again.
Focus on quality
So a fall in foreign student enrolments was fully expected in the wake of introducing tuition fees. Speaking to the Stockholm-based news outlet The Local in May last year, a spokesperson for the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education said: “In some ways, that was the point; not the reduction in itself, but as Education Minister Jan Björklund has explained, the fees are meant to focus on quality as the main attraction of studying in Sweden, rather than it being free.”
State Secretary from the Swedish Ministry of Education and Research Peter Honeth went further in a University World News article in May this year, in which he was quoted saying: “It’s satisfactory that so many fewer applied, this was exactly the effect we wanted. A large proportion of the applicants that had strained the system is now gone.”
And so they have. In their place has come a much smaller overall number of applications, but a higher percentage of eligible applicants in terms of English-language proficiency and relevant qualifications at bachelor level – and, slowly but surely, a willingness to pay.
Moving in the right direction
Andreas Sandberg, from the Swedish Council for Higher Education, says the latest applications data shows signs of recovery. “In 2012 we had a 24% increase in the number of applicants compared to 2011, with an increase of about 20% when it came to applicants who had to pay.
“In 2013, things continued to move in the right direction despite the total number of applicants remaining static. The key figure is the number of applicants that we could process and assess. Here, we saw an increase of 14% in international applicants – with fee-payers up 10%.
“So compared to 2011, the increase is 30% – with paying applicants up by 27%. I think this shows that our communications have improved over the years and the applicants now understand the Swedish system better.”
Another important change is in the way Swedish universities promote themselves abroad, with a new focus on attracting non-fee paying students from other EU-EEA countries to make up for some of the shortfall from Asia and Africa.
Exchange students and those coming through strategic partnerships are also growing in importance as Swedish universities hold on to the value of the multicultural student experience on campus and the global impact of education and research.
Full-time students from other EU countries were a minority in the international learning community before Sweden’s new fees policy. But their number has been rising steadily – from 1,400 ‘free-movers’ enrolling in 2010 to 2,300 last autumn. In the same period, new non-EU-EEA students fell from 7,600 to just 1,700 enrolling last autumn.
Germany is the top European country in terms of students being offered places again this year, with 624 admitted students. Greece is next with 451 being admitted, followed by the UK with 429 students offered a place this year.
Sandberg stressed that the figures only show the country from which the students have their bachelor degree and not their citizenship. For example, of the 429 admitted students from Great Britain in 2013, 395 were not required to pay because they were EU-EEA citizens, while 34 had to pay.
Among the fee-paying countries, India is the top country for overseas applicants, with 2,085 applying and 634 offered a place; overtaking China, which had 1,483 applicants with 516 offered a place at Swedish universities.
Critics of the international tuition fees policy complain that while the policy was supposed to be a bold show of confidence in the quality of Swedish higher education, it was implemented in a rush. On top of that, the fees are among the most expensive in the world and they come with a non-refundable SEK900 (US$138) application fee.
Lund University’s Vice-chancellor Per Eriksson said that despite more fee-paying students applying, and paying their fees this year, more needs to be done. “Well-functioning and extensive scholarships are incredibly important if we are to get fee-paying students to our university.
“We therefore hope that the government will make further investment in expanding the scholarships system and that we can continue to receive scholarships through donations from businesses, organisations and private individuals.”
Lund enrolled 298 new fee-paying masters students this year and its International Director Richard Stenelo said: “This brings [us] back up to 50% of the pre-fees numbers.”
At the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences , which was badly hit by the loss of students from Africa and Asia when fees came in, the head of communications, Tina Zethraeus, said: “The post-study work environment for overseas students also needs to be liberalised, and more needs to be done to overcome the reluctance of Swedish companies to hire foreigners.”
Swedish academics are also worried. Political scientist Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg, vice dean of the faculty of social sciences at Uppsala University, said: “We definitely want more international students. To many of us it is strange that our politicians on the one hand emphasise internationalisation as a main objective in all sorts of contexts, and at the same time ‘de-internationalised’ higher education.
“Charging tuition from non-European students might have been legitimate if the government had invested funds in scholarships that non-European students could apply for to finance studies in Sweden. But this has not been the case.
“Moreover, people worry that charging tuition for non-European students might lower the threshold to institute tuition for Swedish students.”
Funding isn’t everything
But funding isn’t everything, says Niklas Tranaeus, marketing manager for Study in Sweden at the Swedish Institute.
"Scholarships, although very important, are only part of the story. There are other issues which help to explain the sharp decline in numbers and which have been highlighted by universities.
“To mention a few: the slow and rather cumbersome application process, the importance of allowing students to stay and look for work after they have completed their studies and the inflexible system which regulates how universities can charge fees.
“The government is looking into several of these issues and we think that improvements in these areas will have a significant impact on the numbers of students from countries outside the EU that Swedish universities will be able to recruit in coming years.”
One thing for sure is that many in Swedish universities are eagerly counting how many international students have arrived and how many are likely to stay the course.
* Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his own website: http://DelaCourCommunications.com
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