SWEDEN: Aiming for 5,000 foreign PhDs

One in four doctorate candidates in Sweden are foreign citizens. There were 4,179 of them in 2008 in a PhD student population of 16,900, an increase since 1999 of 62%. Of newly-recruited doctoral students in 2008, 32% or 1040 people were foreigners, up from 19% in 1999. The annual increase was 19% between 2007 and 2008 alone, indicating a significant change in the recruitment pattern.

In 2003, 196 foreign starters were recruited to the technological sciences, 21% of enrolments in this field. Yet by 2007, the ratio had increased to 43%, because the number of Swedish students dropped by almost 300 over four years.

This high proportion of foreigners is regarded positively by Swedish universities. Rector Peter Gudmundson at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm said: "KTH is an international university comparing itself with the best technological universities in the world.

"We welcome a marked international element among our students, researchers and teachers. The international component of students at masters and doctorate levels is an enrichment for our research and education."

Of the 2,790 conferred doctoral degrees in 2007, 18% were awarded to foreigners. But considerable differences exist between disciplines: the proportion of foreigners in forestry was 32%, in natural sciences and technology 22%, and in humanities only 8%.

Almost half the graduated doctorates from abroad still live in Sweden five years after graduation.

In 2000, the Swedish Agency for Higher Education published a report called Advantage Sweden which proposed recruiting 1,000 foreign doctoral students each year for five years. One main reason was the fear of not finding a sufficient number of new recruits in technology and selected natural science fields among the Swedes.

A foreign doctorate candidate is defined as a person born outside Sweden who came to the country within the last two years before commencing the degree. Exchange students and those born outside but with Swedish parents are not included.

Of the total number of foreign doctoral students, 31 % are employed at the universities and 26% survive on a grant. Yet only 6% of the Swedes are living on a grant

Foreign studentss are more likely to complete their programmes faster than their Swedish counterparts: 55% of foreign students compared with 34% of the Swedes complete their doctor degree within five years.

Out of 20 universities in Sweden in 2008, foreign doctoral students were in a majority. The ratios ranged from 58% at Luleå University of Technology and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, to 52% at the Stockholm School of Economics and the University of Kalmar , now Linnaeus University, to 13% at Gothenburg University.

Of the new recruits in 2007, 32% came from Asia and 25% from EU countries. Most of the Asian students were from China (239), Iran (134) and Pakistan (84).

One factor explaining the rise of foreign doctoral candidates was the establishment of English master programmes and 61% of the students are now foreign citizens. The other factor contributing to the high proportion of foreigners was the increased announcements of doctorate positions internationally.

"We want the best candidates," said Rector Kåre Bremer at Stockholm University. "And the foreign students are most welcome."

Swedish Television last December ran a programme questioning whether foreign doctoral students receive reasonable financing compared with Swedish students.

Swedish students are often offered full-time employment with a starting salary of SEK 23,000 (US$3,200 or EUR 2,555) a month and with full social benefits. But foreign students on a grant often have to live on half that amount and without access to social benefits.

Rector Bremer said the "slave-like working conditions" portrayed in the programme needed to be corrected.

It is a complex issue because up until now foreigner students outside the EU-EEA areas did not have to pay tuition fees and this gave them a financial advantage over those going to US or UK universities.

Last Friday, the government announced it would present its plans to parliament on the introduction of fees for non-European students next year. University and Higher Education Minister Tobias Krantz told reporters told reporters Sweden wanted to compete in the international education market on the quality of its education system, rather than because its education was free to foreigners.

"Sweden is one of the easiest countries in the world to apply for a university place, with a large number of foreign students and high number of online courses - but many of these students do not complete their studies," Krantz said.

He said the government expected that enrolments by foreign students would fall initially but that the country would continue to attract large numbers:."Sweden is a knowledge nation, we have strong English skills and many courses are held in English; I am convinced that in the longer term we will continue to attract large numbers."

Although Kranz did not specify what the fee levels would be, he said any fees charged should cover the costs of education provision. Early last year, the government indicated fees could be in the range of US$9,500 to $11,000 year. It is believed, however that whatever fees are charged, doctoral students will be exempt.