International students are key to plugging STEM gap

A new report into private funding of competence building recommends introducing tax incentives to encourage the funding of grants for international students to help plug a historic shortfall in graduates in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – subjects.

The report argues that, since a higher proportion of international students to Sweden are selecting STEM subjects, recruiting and retaining such international students could be a key strategy to bridge the gap between demand for candidates with such competence and the supply presently provided by Swedish universities, which they say is much too low.

The Philanthropy Forum report, Study Destination Sweden: Private capital for increased competence building and competitive strengthening (in Swedish with an English summary), is written by Martin Wikstrøm and Johan Eklund.

The authors argue that the STEM gap now is reaching "historic proportions".

"Since the first half of the 1990s, the deficit between demand and supply in the workforce has widened, and over recent years reached levels that have never before been recorded,” they said.

"Even though the number of students graduating increased from 33,000 in 1996 to 77,000 in 2015 or by 130%, there is an unsatisfied demand, for instance, for engineers and IT candidates," they said.

"In Sweden in 2015 some 31,000 students were recruited to STEM education in Sweden, which was 29% of the students admitted. In Germany, however, the corresponding figure was 39%.”

Using available statistics they compared data for this gap over time and concluded that the Swedish higher education system is "rigged" in a way that creates a mismatch between supply and demand for STEM competencies in the workforce.

"Sweden in 2015 had a lower proportion of international students at basic and lower levels compared to Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark," they said. This number was significantly reduced by the introduction of tuition fees in 2011 for international students from outside the European Union or European Economic Area.

“Even if this trend has gone up again over recent years, there is a need for Sweden to attract and retain more international students," Wikstrøm and Eklund argue.

They examined whether one mechanism to increase recruitment could be to have private companies fund more grants and enter into agreements with universities on arrangements for the placing of such students, but found that the culture for this is lacking in Sweden and that special measures would have to be taken to make it happen.

"Our investigation demonstrates that it is not very probable that private companies will contribute to a great extent to private funding for grants to international students having to pay tuition fees.”

They suggest that one way to create more such grants could be to offer companies tax incentives for contributing to local or regional grants. They also said that governmental grants for tuition fee-paying international students should be increased in number significantly.

They go on to discuss a number of other bottlenecks for increased international recruitment, including the housing shortage and the many bureaucratic hurdles presently not solved. They said that to make the granting system more attractive and effective, the decision of financial support should be harmonised with the admission procedures to the universities.

Different models for attracting international students should be tried out and reported on in order to transfer insight and experiences, they recommended.