Introducing fees for non-EU students is a game-changer

The introduction of tuition fees for foreign students had only a marginal effect upon the more than SEK23 billion (US$2.6 billion) higher education budget in 2015. But it has been a game-changer at the vast majority of Swedish higher education institutions, which now take internationalisation work more seriously.

Five years after the introduction of tuition fees for students from outside the European Union, nine universities are each receiving over a hundred fee-paying students. KTH Royal Institute of Technology with 427 fee-paying students, Linnaeus University with 334 and Lund University with 322 are the three universities receiving the most.

Most new fee-paying students came from India (590), China (540), Pakistan (250), Iran (130) and Bangladesh (120).

The numbers could have been much higher, since only 30% of students from outside Europe who were admitted to Swedish higher education institutions took up their place. Bureaucracy, the obligation to pay the first-year fees before being given a visa for studies and delayed communication are factors that made 70% of those admitted decide not to take up their study place.

Altogether, 2,973 new tuition fee-paying students came to Sweden in 2015, paying SEK507 million (US$57 million) in total. However, since 42% of the fee income is paid in grants by the higher education institutions or the government, tuition fees had only a marginal effect upon higher education budgets in 2015.

But while the economic impact is low, the impact on Swedish higher education is significant.

In many ways the introduction of tuition fees has been a game-changer for the international work at a majority of Swedish higher education institutions. Several institutions are reporting that they have taken their internationalisation challenges more seriously since 2011.

Sudden drop in recruits

In the first year after the introduction of tuition fees for foreign students, in 2011-12, the number of foreign ‘free-mover’ students dropped from 14,500 to 5,800. That is a reduction of 60%. But the number of exchange students remained almost at the same level and hence the number of total newly recruited foreign students was 20,600 in 2011-12.

The year before the introduction of tuition fees, in 2010-11, the number of new incoming students was 29,040 and half of these were exchange students. In 2011-12 the number of new incoming students fell by 29%. The number of exchange students and free-mover students from EU or European Economic Area (EEA) countries and Switzerland continued to increase, while the number of free-mover students from third (non-EU) countries decreased from 8,080 to 1,650, that is, by a staggering 80%.

After five years of tuition fees, in 2015, the number of fee-paying students was 4,040, out of a total of 290,440 full-time students, or 1.4% of the students. In total, they paid SEK500 million in tuition fees, out of a total budget of SEK23.8 billion, or 2.1% of the total budget.

Allegations that fees are too high

Due to the media coverage in the summer of 2016, the Swedish government asked the Swedish Higher Education Authority or UKÄ to map out how the introduction of tuition fees has impacted the recruitment of foreign students.

The background to this media coverage, as reported by University World News, was that the tuition fees claimed by Swedish higher education institutions varied significantly, and that for the same courses taught at different institutions, students were charged significantly different fee levels.

UKÄ has now published an extensive report, which maps out the tuition fees charged across higher education institutions and over time since the introduction of such fees for students from outside Europe in 2011-12. It also examines the recruitment processes and regulations at higher education institutions.

Specifically, it looks at how student mobility has been affected by the introduction of tuition fees, notably for countries where Sweden has a specific long-term obligation to support higher education. Altogether these comprise 32 countries in three categories – long-term development cooperation countries, conflict- and post-conflict countries and Eastern European collaboration countries.

Also, the higher education institutions were asked how grants for the tuition-eligible students are influencing recruitment patterns, if the supply of new courses has increased and if recruitment to the doctoral level – which is excluded from tuition fees – has eventually been affected by a reduction in the number of foreign students recruited at the masters level.

A group of seven investigators led by Marie Kahlroth at UKÄ worked on the investigation, supported by two experts from the Swedish Council for Higher Education or UHR.

The report was presented to the Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson on 19 January 2017.

Stipulation of the fee levels

The introduction of tuition fees involves extra administrative tasks for higher education institutions and the legislation allows for full compensation of the costs of building up such an administrative apparatus to be built into the tuition fees claimed. Such tasks include information production, recruitment calls, handling of application fees and tuition fees, student advice and contact with migration authorities on visa issues etc.

Hence, the average tuition fee level claimed for students from outside Europe is significantly higher than the allocation per student received from the government, that is, SEK125,000 (US$14,000) versus SEK76,000 (US$8,500) per year.

Another reason this average is higher could be that foreign students are often recruited to the more expensive study options. Courses in the social sciences and the humanities have the lowest average tuition fee levels, varying between SEK80,000 and SEK110,000 per year, while courses in technical subjects and the natural sciences are between SEK130,000 and SEK145,000 on average, and courses in architecture and design are between SEK190,000 and SEK270,000 per year. Some courses in music and art could have even higher levels.

Higher education institutions also answered a survey on how they decided upon the levels of tuition fees, which was answered by 36 institutions. Some of the respondents said they deliberately did not set tuition fees too low as they did not want to give the impression that studies at their institution were not of the same quality as at comparable elite institutions in other countries.

The institutions were also asked on what grounds they were refunding tuition fees already paid by foreign students and what time limits they used. The examiners concluded that there is a need for greater national coordination on the rules and regulations on how already-paid tuition fees should be refunded when people changed their minds.

Higher education institutions are reporting that the reform has had a significant effect on the workload and organising of international work at their institution, even if the tuition fee-paying students are targeting a low number of courses in total. This is because they have to calculate the tuition-fee costs of every course offered, since there is in principle no restriction on which courses foreign students can apply for.

Thirty-six out of 38 institutions report that one outcome of the reform is that they have started working more seriously with internationalisation issues.

Negative reactions

Ulrika Herstedt, press secretary at the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers or SULF, which includes doctoral candidates in its membership, noted a steep fall in recruited foreign doctoral candidates since fees were introduced.

She told University World News: “The number of new students at doctorate level in 2012 was 760 from countries outside Europe or 26% of the recruited candidates, while this number in 2015 was 580 or 19%. Since recruitment to advanced study levels is a recruitment path to doctorate studies, SULF concludes that the tuition fee reform is to blame.”

Chair of the Swedish National Union of Students or SFS, Caroline Sundberg, representing 275,000 students and PhD students, told University World News that the report shows the government is not justified in keeping a system where students outside of the EU, EEA and Switzerland pay tuition fees.

“We therefore argue that the tuition fees be abolished immediately. For us, a strong welfare system rests on the back of the principle of free education. Education made available for all. The student should not be the one that has to fund the future.”

Sundberg said that since 2011 higher education in Sweden has become less of an opportunity for all.

“When we read the report and the remarks from the Association of Swedish Higher Education regarding attracting the ‘most merited’ students we get worried: Are the fee-paying students to be treated differently? One of the strongest discourses from the feministic Swedish government and Ministry of Higher Education and Research has been to widen participation and make education more accessible. It is and should be considered a shame within a strong welfare system not valuing higher education as a human right.

“The report shows tendencies towards programmes and courses offered becoming more adapted towards international students. We find such tendencies problematic due to our vision of how the higher education offered should be based on student demand for the courses. This should be the principle regardless if the student is required to pay or not.”

Sundberg added that both Swedish and foreign new PhD students seem to have declined in numbers since 2012. “Notably, among the foreign PhD students, there was only a decline in the ones coming from outside of the EU, EEA and Switzerland. We see this trend as problematic since the tuition fees most likely have negatively influenced the international recruitment to the third cycle of education.”