Investigator backs tuition fees for foreign students

The government investigator Agneta Bladh, appointed last year to work out a comprehensive strategy for the internationalisation of Swedish higher education, on 31 October presented her report to Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson and later shared it with an audience at Uppsala University.

The 475-page report, Increased Attractivity – Momentum for Sweden as a knowledge nation (with a 38-page English summary), proposes to strengthen Swedish internationalisation of higher education through a plethora of measures, but most notably through increased recruitment of international students by making their route into Swedish universities much less burdensome than it is today and by increasing scholarship funding.

"Many countries today are competing for knowledge, competence and investments to improve their position. Higher education, research and innovations are key factors in this picture, but the competition is tough. Several countries are making great efforts. So is Sweden, but not to the same degree as many countries we can compare ourselves with," the report said.

"For Sweden to maintain quality and relevance, more international networks and contacts are needed and the governmental support system must be rigged so that it is supporting the work at the higher education institutions in the best possible way,” the report says.

The full two-part report – which incorporates a previous report published in February – notes that Sweden in 2007 received 1% of the world's mobile students, but due to the introduction of tuition fees for students from outside Europe in 2017 this share fell to 0.6% or 3,400 tuition fee-paying students.

However, there is an enormous amount of work being undertaken today by the higher education institutions to attract and retain international students.

The report provides statistics from 2014-15, when Swedish higher education institutions received a total of 40,727 applications for places from international students and 14,493 paid the application fee. However, although 5,448 were accepted, only 2,816 paid the tuition fees. In addition, within two years of being accepted, only 1,528 had passed the degree examinations in the course they applied for.

The report proposes a policy of continuing to claim full-cost tuition fees from international students, but clearly states that the condition for this is that the higher education institutions must account for all the costs that are claimed in the tuition fee set for each course, so that students can see what they are paying for.

At the same time the report proposes increased funding for scholarships, including:
  • • Doubling to SEK120 million (US$13 million) the scholarship funding available to universities, intended for highly qualified students regardless of their country of origin, to reduce tuition fees and award grants for living costs.

  • • Creating a new SEK50 million scholarship programme for flagship scholarships for highly qualified students studying for a masters degree linked to a prominent research environment, covering tuition fees and living costs.

  • • A new SEK50 million scholarship programme for scholarships created as part of bilateral agreements between Sweden and another country.

  • • Giving higher education institutions the leeway to use up to 0.3% of funding for education at first and second cycle levels to reduce tuition fees for third-country students in special cases.
The report also says the possibility of allowing tax deductions for donations to scholarships to encourage industry to contribute to skills supply should be investigated. It also calls for a 33% increase in the SEK150 million allocated to second cycle scholarships from the development cooperation budget, to fund student and teacher exchanges.

International platform

Another key proposal is that the Swedish Council for Higher Education, the Swedish Higher Education Authority, the Swedish Institute, Sweden's innovation agency Vinnova and the Swedish Research Council should set up an internationalisation platform to coordinate issues affecting internationalisation within higher education, research and innovation.

A high-level steering group for the platform should be appointed and different working groups should be organised with participation from government agencies, organisations and students.

The main objective of the platform should be to work out a process to ease the way for international students coming to Sweden as fee-paying students, notably by developing a joint web-based cross-agency interface for foreign students to apply to Swedish higher education institutions and to deal with their application for a study place, scholarship and residence in one place and not as today, through interaction with several organisations.

The report proposes separate web-based admission procedures and timelines for international students and significantly easier in-migration procedures for international students through a routine collaboration between universities and the migration office.

The same five bodies involved in the platform should be tasked with providing continuous and in-depth information and analysis of international developments relevant to research, higher education and research-linked innovation.

To promote Sweden as a knowledge nation and study destination, the report proposes expanding the current Offices of Science and Innovation within government offices, which currently have a presence in six Swedish embassies.

It also suggests expanding the Swedish Institute’s remit to promote and market Sweden as a study destination and the establishment of a programme for Swedish research and higher education ambassadors to raise awareness of Sweden as a knowledge nation.

Bladh told University World News: “The most important goal for internationalisation is to increase the quality in higher education and research. The different proposals and recommendations in my report – and the earlier report – are meant to support this.

“Even if much focus in the report is on the conditions for incoming students and their situation, it is worth noting that no targets are set for the recruitment of fee-paying (non-European) students. The higher education institutions must themselves reflect how these students contribute to the quality of their higher education and recruit according to this.”

She said the two reports consist of many recommendations made directly to the Swedish universities, not only proposals to the Swedish government. “I therefore hope the higher education institutions will examine the reports and, with the reports as background, reflect over the status of internationalisation in their respective institution.”

A whole-university responsibility

Commenting on the latest report, Professor Eva Åkesson, rector of Uppsala University and chair of the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions’ committee for internationalisation, said on her blog: "It is a long time since internationalisation could be looked upon as an isolated activity. Today, it is self-evident that internationalisation work must be regarded as the responsibility of the whole university.”

She said Uppsala has intensified its work to promote Sweden as an international study destination.

“For the autumn term 2018 we had 15,800 international applications, compared to 2011 when the number was 4,225. Most important is the accepted view that international students are enriching the learning environment."

Karin Åmossa, chief investigator with responsibility for international questions at the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), said in a press statement: "An increased grant programme and the possibility for higher education institutions to lower tuition fees for students in specific cases are good for the recruitment of international students to Sweden with all the advantages this could have.

“But this way of thinking is only logical for those who are looking upon education only as an investment for the individual student, like goods that you can buy at the market and where you can have the money back if there is something wrong with the goods.

“We had greater expectations," Åmossa said.

She said Sweden has everything to gain by letting all students, regardless of where they come from, have the same conditions in the form of tuition-free education.

“An increased grant programme in the form of investment in elite students is not sufficient to create the understanding and relations needed for a sustainable future.

"There is also a risk that the logic behind the tuition fee system will be transferred to Swedish students if in future we get a government that wants to save money," Åmossa said.

Andreas Göthenberg, executive director of the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT), who was a member of the expert group involved in Bladh’s investigation, told University World News: “It is very good that the report addresses the need for more trend analysis and presence abroad. I strongly believe this is necessary for the development of internationalisation strategies at universities and funders.

“Therefore, I appreciate that Bladh in her report recognises the potential in STINT’s new role as a national knowledge resource for internationalisation, especially our model and office for policy and trend analysis in China. Our model could rather easily be replicated for other countries.”

SULF earlier warned that the parliamentary Committee on Education, since it was reformed after the election in September, comprises members with relatively little or no experience of higher education and research, compared to the previous committee.

Also, the electoral gains of the Sweden Democrats, who have 62 out of the 349 MPs, after standing on a policy to reduce public spending, might affect the chances of the recommendations of this extensive investigation being implemented. Two months after the parliamentary election, no government has yet been formed.

The report said that the recommendations proposed are for the period 2020 through to the year 2030.