Internationalisation proposals raise funding questions

A grant scheme for foreign students and the expansion of Sweden’s network of higher education and research centres abroad are among the preliminary proposals being drawn up by the special investigation into strengthening internationalisation of higher education and research in Sweden, but questions arise about how they can be funded.

The special investigator, Agneta Bladh, and her supporting staff met with the Forum for Internationalisation in Stockholm in June to draw up preliminary proposals to be circulated for discussion as part of her investigation into strengthening internationalisation of higher education, which is due to be delivered to the government before 1 November this year.

The Forum for Internationalisation, established by the Ministry of Education and Research in 2008, is comprised of 28 members from organisations working with internationalisation questions, such as the Swedish Council for Higher Education, the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF), the Swedish Migration Agency, the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the Swedish Board of Student Finance.

The forum met in Stockholm with the special investigation staff members to go through the different organisations’ responses to the first report of the internationalisation proposals and to hear about the planning of how to implement these. At the meeting Bladh presented a preliminary outline on some of the content in the second report, to be delivered this autumn.

One potentially complicating factor is how the right-wing nationalist party, Sweden Democrats, now polling up to 25% of the votes, compared to 12.9% in the 2014 election, might seek to make the conditions for internationalisation of higher education more difficult after parliamentary elections in September.

Preliminary proposals

The investigator has proposed that the government ask key stakeholders to coordinate questions with regard to internationalisation in higher education and research through the establishment of a high-level group in which the director generals of the most involved organisations participate.

Further, it is proposed that the Swedish Institute should be mandated to inform people abroad about Sweden as a knowledge nation; and develop its marketing of Sweden as a study destination abroad.

The investigator is also proposing some 10 additional higher education and research centres be established in different locations in Africa, North America, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and South Asia, expanding the network from the five existing centres in Washington DC, Brasilia, New Delhi, Beijing and Tokyo.

The purpose is to strengthen Sweden’s global connections to strategic international innovation, research and higher education milieus, promote Sweden as an attractive knowledge nation, and increase the international exposure of Swedish innovation, research and higher education.

One proposal is to establish a five-year specific collaboration with one specific country for SEK5 million (US$567,000).

The investigator has also recommended that both the universities and the Swedish Council for Higher Education examine the application processes for foreign students, particularly to see how the process can be speeded up.

The investigator is also working on a proposal for a grant scheme for foreign students, addressing issues that have arisen since Sweden introduced tuition fees for students from outside Europe in 2011.

How to retain international students?

The Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis was mandated by the ministry to analyse the extent to which Swedish universities contribute to attracting highly qualified people to the Swedish labour market.

The questions are to what degree incoming international students and doctoral candidates stay in Sweden upon the completion of their studies; and what measures could be taken at Swedish higher education institutions to contribute to a higher retention rate, both for students and doctoral candidates.

The analysis shows that around 20% of incoming international students and doctoral candidates stay and work in the country on completion of their studies.

The retention rate tends to be somewhat lower than in other comparable OECD countries. With regard to incoming doctoral students, 40% of those graduating in 2013 were employed in Sweden in 2015. But only a few universities were graduating those doctoral candidates who stayed on. A majority of the international students and doctoral candidates who stayed on were living in the main cities and mostly in the Stockholm region.

“Thousands of students from other countries choose to come to Sweden to study every year, and they contribute to Sweden’s economy during their period of study by paying tuition fees and through their consumption in the country,” the report stated.

“There are numerous indications that if they stay and work in Sweden, they can contribute to growth and have a positive impact on the economy. The need for incoming students and doctoral candidates to stay in Sweden is also likely to increase as Sweden moves towards addressing skills shortages,” the agency argued.

Helene Hellmark Knutsson, minister for higher education and research, and Karin Röding, the director general of the Swedish Council for Higher Education, in a joint article published in Nyheter24, endorsed the special investigator’s objective, proposed in her first report, of setting a target of ensuring that 25% of Swedish students study abroad by 2025.

“Sweden has to heighten the tempo in internationalisation work, since we are lagging behind: among the students now graduating, only 15% have spent study time abroad. And among the larger study groups, for instance teachers, nurses and social workers, the proportion graduating with an experience from abroad is significantly lower, only 3-4%. And this is in spite of these groups reaping great benefit from such experiences in their future work,” Hellmark Knutsson and Röding argued.

Agneta Bladh told University World News that at this stage the proposals are merely preliminary, designed to be presented and discussed in different fora to obtain views from the higher education sector – and key decisions on how to fund them have yet to be made.

Difficult choices

Bladh said the proposals discussed were costly and difficult choices would have to be made for the next report, as “more funding is needed to fulfil both grants to third-country students and to promote offices in some countries. Both these measures might be necessary to strengthen Sweden as a knowledge nation.”

She said that although one way to find funding could be to reduce the allocation to the higher education institutions, this is “not popular among higher education institutions and I do not like it either”.

She stressed that Sweden currently has only five research and innovation offices linked to some embassies and coordinated from the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation, although there are also some other offices abroad organised by other organisations. So it would appear that she sees expansion of the offices as a priority.

Former rector of Stockholm University, Professor Kåre Bremer, told University World News that higher education and research is “not at all an issue in the upcoming election, and even if it was, I do not think that the two major blocks would be opposed to increased internationalisation”.

He does not expect Bladh’s final proposals to be addressed until the next government proposal for research and innovation, which is set every four years and is due in 2020. Before then, they will be sent out to universities for consultation.

Hans Pohl, programme director at the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT), told University World News: “I agree that it can be difficult and costly to implement these proposals, regardless of what government we get. But I am glad that the investigator is driving these questions forward: Sweden is in need of better organised research and innovation agencies abroad and this is also work that STINT is engaged in.”