SWEDEN: Plan to introduce fees creates problems

In its budget for 2010, the Swedish government has proposed introducing fees for foreign students from 2011. The Education Ministry is preparing a bill that will be presented to Parliament while universities and government officials are working out how to handle the change.

The Education Ministry has established a forum for international education where two representatives from 14 governmental agencies responsible for internationalisation of higher education meet with representatives from associations of students, academics and institutions.

The forum's first meeting discussed a critical report by the National Audit Office questioning whether the government and the higher education institutions had planned, implemented and followed-up recruitment of international students (as decided by the Parliament) and whether the objectives of greater intercultural understanding at the institutions and improved quality had thereby been met.

The government hopes to maintain foreign student numbers following introduction of fees and the first two meetings resulted in a wealth of detail on foreign students in Sweden and Swedish students abroad. The major question was how to introduce fees for foreigners without numbers falling or affecting the quality of the education programmes partly established to recruit them.

Institutions claim they need at least one year to prepare and fear that potential foreign students will apply next year in even greater numbers than before so as to start their studies before fees are introduced. Although Swedish student numbers in higher education have decreased in recent years, total enrolments have been held constant by the arrival of foreigners.

Total resources committed to higher education of some 30 billion kroner a year (EUR3.3 billion or US$4.3 billion) might have been significantly lower had institutions not compensated for the declining interest of Swedish students by recruiting others from outside the country.

The National Audit Office report criticised the lack of integration of foreign students in Swedish institutions, noting that several English-taught master degrees were comprised only of non-Swedish students. The report, however, called for fees for foreign students but with grants for those from developing countries as a compensation measure. In Norway, the government is financing 1,100 such grants.

At present, 8% of the total student body in Sweden, some 30,000 students, are now foreign, up from 3.1 % in 1998. In 2006-2007, their number exceeded that of Swedish students studying abroad.

The volume of applications is increasing sharply - to 130,000 this year, and 75,000 have applied for masters courses taught in English. But the number of false documents detected is increasing, complaints have increased three-fold in two years, and the number of no-shows, with 18,000 foreign students accepted but failing to enrol, is very high.

Application numbers from certain countries suggest that agents are encouraging students to apply. The two major nations are Pakistan, with 40,000 students applying for a place this year, and Nigeria with 20,000.

Fee levels will be decided by the institutions themselves and, when fees are introduced, the government expects they will position themselves in a global competition for the best students.

This will require new strategic thinking by the universities and a new organisation of education and research. One idea is to increase support for international marketing of Swedish universities via a government-supported organisation with representation at Swedish embassies.

At the same time as foreign students are coming to Sweden in increasing numbers, some studies show a dramatic increase of Swedish students going abroad. Each year, 2,200 new licences for medical doctors are issued in Sweden yet only 800 of these are educated at home. The rest are educated abroad and many are Swedish citizens having studied in Poland, Hungary and Romania.

The Swedish ambassador in Romania has said that 30% of all medical students in Bucharest are from Sweden and the number is increasing. The students pay EUR3,000 a year in fees and are apparently satisfied with the clinical training they receive at Bucharest University.

The ambassador said students asked him to contact Swedish universities in an effort to achieve greater collaboration between Romanian and Swedish institutions in medical sciences.