SWEDEN: Fall in foreign applications hits courses

A dramatic fall in the number of non-European foreign students paying their application fee could result in course closures at Swedish universities. Only 5,600 of the 20,100 students applying from outside the European Union and European Economic Area paid their fee by this year's deadline. The applications of the remaining 14,500 will not proceed.

With only 15,000 applicants from both Europe and outside the EU-EEA at this stage in 2011, many courses in Sweden that earlier were filled up by highly qualified foreign students will experience a lack of students and have to cut down activity unless there are rises in Swedish and EU-EAA applications in the second round.

The fall follows the decision to charge tuition fees for foreign students and means that Swedish universities have significantly reduced the work involved in sifting applications from foreign students compared to 2010. For 2011 they have to examine 15,000 applications, compared with 132,000 last year.

At Stockholm University, for instance, out of 3,569 tuition fee-paying applicants to masters courses, only 1,198 had paid their application fee and only 101 out of 590 applying for international courses had paid by the deadline.

The fall contrasts with the rising number of international students in Sweden in recent years. Their numbers nearly tripled between 1999 and 2008, rising from 11% of the student intake to 26%. The yearly growth rate of foreign students was 14%, reaching 36,600 international students in 2008-09.

The number of new foreign students in 2008-09 was 24,000, and is thought to have risen above 30,000 in 2009-10 and even higher in 2010-11, the last year in which such students did not have to pay a tuition fee. Official figures are not yet available.

Another expected reduction in applications from international students paying tuition fees is expected by the end of April, when the first instalment of tuition fees is due from those accepted.

One university hit by the reduction in number of applicants is the KTH-Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm, even though it has received a relatively high number of applications compared to other Swedish institutions.

Rector Peter Gudmundson of KTH said: "We are currently restructuring our offer of masters programmes, mainly as a consequence of the new system with fees. There will most likely be fewer masters programmes offered in the next years."

He said it was difficult to say if the fall in numbers applying will result in a fall in the quality of those admitted. "The scholarships that are available will certainly be very attractive," he said.

Eva Åkesson, Pro-rector of Lund University, said it was too early to say if courses would have to close, because it depended on how applications from Swedish students and further applications from EU-EAA countries changed when they are due in April.

She said the EU-EAA numbers were already about the same as in previous years but the numbers from Greece had doubled.

"Actually we have several programmes that have increased the number of applicants significantly," she said. "We will continue to follow and evaluate the development closely, as we do every year, and possibly adjust our programme portfolio."

She said the main problem is not the tuition fees, but rather the very high application fee that the Swedish government forces universities to charge when students apply.

"We will try to convince the government to lower the application fee to a more internationally accepted level. Today Sweden has the highest application fee in the world. The government wants us to compete with quality, which we could do, but then we need to be able to compete in the global education market on fair terms," she said.

The Swedish universities that have received most international applications are Lund University (2,114), KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (1,526) and Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg (1,248).