Losing talent to a freedom-loving America

In June 2010, the Swedish parliament decided that non-European students should pay tuition fees from the autumn of the following year while studying in Sweden. The consequences were dramatic.

In the autumn of that year, the number of non-European students applying for a place in Swedish masters programmes plummeted to 25,000 – down from 125,000 the year before – while the number admitted fell from 16,600 to 1,200.

High tuition fees, matching those at Stanford in the United States and prominent universities in the United Kingdom, combined with the extremely limited possibility of scholarships, had made Sweden a far less attractive destination.

This was not the least because none of the Swedish universities has a brand comparable to the American Ivy League or the best English universities.

In a laconic comment on the figures, State Secretary from the Ministry of Education and Research Peter Honeth said: “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.”

The fact that, among the 100,000 not applying, would most probably be a number of excellent students either not able to or not willing to pay these type of fees, was never discussed – and neither were the consequences for Sweden of this loss of international competencies and influences.

Yet these students would probably have obtained American scholarships to study in the US, where the importance of finding and selecting good students does not depend on national or cultural backgrounds.

Free education as free trade is still not on the agenda anywhere other than the US, so it is no wonder that global talent congregates at universities such as Stanford and MIT.

That June 2010 decision, however, did not include non-European PhD students, for which we should be grateful.

The total number of doctoral students in Sweden has varied during the past 10 years and today is near 20,000 – almost the same as 10 years ago. Yet the share of foreign students has increased steadily and currently is about 40% of all PhD beginners, while in natural science and technology it is 60%.

This means that there has been a rather dramatic decline in the number of Swedish doctoral students, especially in natural science and technology. Needless to say, a decision to introduce tuition fees for third-cycle education among Swedish students would be a catastrophe.

The market for PhDs

The labour market for PhDs today is very different compared to 10 years ago.

The non-academic labour market and industrial companies have become major employers of PhD graduates and it is currently mainly Swedish multinational companies that see the advantages of hiring those from major new developing countries – and those companies have also reacted strongly against tuition fees for students enrolled in masters programmes.

Two-thirds of the natural science and technology PhDs in Europe now enter the non-academic labour market. This is not always by choice, because they have been fostered in a doctoral training solidly ruled by a culture of the ‘research for research's sake’ paradigm.

Normally such a change in labour market needs is reflected in education adapting to the new requirements. This has not yet happened in PhD programmes on the broad basis that is needed. Research for a research thesis and disciplinary academic courses still rule the study plans of most PhD students.

The main challenge facing European universities and their PhD programmes is to realise that they now educate mostly for a labour market that demands frontline research knowledge but, equally, the skills to apply this and create innovations and societal impact.

University and faculty governance must appreciate the change in most PhD graduate careers and drive this development. This is essential if Sweden and the rest of Europe are to attract the PhDs needed as a key resource for a new and innovative Europe.

The inward flow of foreign students will diminish when or if these students realise they are not getting value for their efforts in terms of a modern doctoral training that gives them the right competencies for a successful future career.

* Lena Adamson is an associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University and a higher education consultant to the Council of Europe. Anders Flodström is a professor of physics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and educational director for EIT ICT Labs.