Overhauling strategies for HE internationalisation

When the special investigator for increased internationalisation at Swedish higher education institutions, Dr Agneta Bladh, delivered the first part of her landmark investigation to Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson on 31 January, the minister warned that Sweden had “slipped behind” in internationalisation.

“The goal of the European Union is that 20% of students should study for part of their degree abroad, but in Sweden this is now only 14%. In the professional degrees it is only 4%. I think that we still have a too limited national perspective,” Hellmark Knutsson said.

At the same time there are now fewer students from outside Europe studying in Sweden than in 2011 when tuition fees were introduced for these students in an “over hasty” and “very inflexible” way.

The number of incoming students from abroad was at its peak during the 2010-11 academic year (46,700) and declined at the lowest point to 32,600 in the 2013-14 academic year, after the introduction of tuition fees. After a slight recovery, there were 35,900 incoming students from abroad at Swedish higher education institutions in the 2016-17 academic year.

Some universities, such as Uppsala University, now have as many students from outside Europe as before the tuition fees were introduced.

Speaking to Uppsala University student newspaper Ergo, Hellmark Knutsson said the hope now is to get back to the same level of international student recruitment the country had when higher education was free for all, “but this is a great challenge”.

The Bladh investigation is an attempt at a highly ambitious response to this quandary.

“Sweden is not using its preconditions as a knowledge nation well enough,” Agneta Bladh said at the launch of the first part of her findings, A Strategic Agenda for Internationalisation: First report of the inquiry on increased internationalisation at universities and university colleges*.

“Increased internationalisation is needed both for securing higher quality within research and in teaching and for the Swedish society at large,” Bladh said.

Interactive process

Bladh is being supported in conducting the inquiry by Maria Wilenius and Albin Gaunt as the secretariat, and is being further assisted by experts and support from governmental agencies.

A reference group of eleven representatives from Swedish governmental agencies and associations was appointed on 4 April 2017, and has since met four times together with experts from the ministries. Professor Pam Fredman, who is president of the International Association of Universities, was a member of the reference group until she was appointed special investigator for universities’ governance and funding by the government.

The internationalisation inquiry has been very active in arranging events discussing different issues, has met with a large number of stakeholders, universities and different ministries, and has undertaken trips to Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the United States in order to collect comparative data. The inquiry has its own webpage and a separate Facebook page.

The report

The first report emphasises the need for comprehensive internationalisation at governmental as well as institutional level and proposes how to address the mobility issue of incoming and outgoing students and staff.

The inquiry proposes that new wording regarding internationalisation should be added to the Higher Education Act: that all international activities at each higher education institution should contribute to improving the quality of education and research and, nationally and globally, to achieve sustainable development.

The report also includes comparisons with Finland, the Netherlands, Germany and Canada, and a discussion on Nordic and European collaboration and mobility at global levels.

The report discusses in detail eight overarching objectives for the strategy on how to make Sweden one of the most attractive international knowledge nations with world-leading quality of education and research.

One chapter deals with the present state of internationalisation and future challenges, notably at the interface between higher education and research. The final analysis chapter deals with the consequences of the proposal and recommendations. The 432-page-long first part of the inquiry has four appendices, among them a survey of all higher education institutions in Sweden, as presented by University World News.

The proposals include a new goal of 25% outgoing mobility by 2025, as well as new programmes for more flexible mobility, for virtual mobility and for teacher mobility outside Europe.

Scrapping tuition fees?

University World News asked representatives of Swedish universities if the question of tuition fees and the eventual scrapping of these should be part of the remit of the inquiry.

Professor Mats Benner of Lund University and the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm said: “Well, is it time? Surely, something must be done to enhance the international recruitment to Swedish higher education institutions.

“With a few notable exceptions, universities and university colleges have not been able to recuperate the losses made in 2011. Scrapping fees might be one solution, but it is unlikely that the ministry of finance will allow this.”

He said a much more comprehensive stipend and scholarship system would be a more feasible solution, which would also force Swedish higher education institutions to be “more proactive in attracting and retaining international students”.

Vice-chancellor of Karolinska Institute, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, told University World News that many people in Swedish higher education feel that it was wrong to introduce such fees in 2011, but also that it would be wrong to reverse this now. “If Sweden changes the rules, this will give the impression of an unpredictable policy.”

He said he has written numerous blogs and debate articles arguing that the introduction of tuition fees led to a reduction in the diversity of perspectives on campus. “The Europeanisation we now are seeing at Swedish universities after the changes in 2011 is confirming this picture. I am convinced that there is only one academy, and that is the global academy. So having a wall between the European Union and elsewhere is not in line with the idea of a university,” he said.

He said if it is not politically feasible to cancel the arrangements with tuition fees, then the effects have to be minimalised by a more extensive grant policy. “We cannot address the great global challenges – including poverty, health inequalities etc – without confronting these challenges.”

Former rector of Stockholm University, Professor Kåre Bremer, said: “Tuition fees are probably here to stay but the requirement that students from outside the EU/EEA [European Union/European Economic Area] must pay the full cost – an unwise decision taken in political unity when the system was introduced – should be revised.

“Either there should be a much more generous scholarship programme eliminating fees or the universities should be allowed to fund a certain number of international students in the same way as Swedish/EU/EEA students,” he said.

Resource requirement

The inquiry could usefully heed the findings of the Danish investigation by Professor Sverker Sörlin and colleagues into doctoral education in 2006, producing the report, A Public Good, which led to an almost doubling of doctoral students over the next decade.

The Sörlin recommendations coincided with a cross-political agreement in parliament establishing the Danish ‘globalisation fund’, allocating an extraordinary 0.5% of gross national product (GNP), amounting to DKK40 billion (US$6.6 billion), over the following six years in extra funding for higher education activities, including international recruitment at doctoral level.

“The Danish example shows us the importance of political commitment and the need also to invest heavily in internationalisation. I hope that the Swedish government is willing to prioritise resources to internationalisation of higher education and research,” Bladh told University World News.

The Swedish inquiry will deal with this question in more detail in the final report due by 31 October this year.

*The report is in Swedish, with a version with a summary in English.