Booming internationalisation raises an awkward question

Internationalisation is growing in Sweden, with a 5% rise in international students last year. But while this may be something to celebrate, it has also raised some difficult questions.

The fact that nearly 80% of post-doc researchers are international has been welcomed, but a sharply rising share of doctoral students who are international has led experts to wonder whether, and if so why, Swedish students are unable or unwilling to compete.

UKÄ, the Swedish Education Authority, in its annual report for 2018 says internationalisation of higher education has increased, with 37,830 new international students registered in 2017-18, a 5% rise on the year before.

International students now make up 28% of new students.

Free movers – students who plan their own study abroad as opposed to exchange students – accounted for all of the increase and in particular, free movers paying tuition fees increased significantly, by 24% compared to the previous year.

International post-docs dominate

Even more remarkable is that among those receiving post-doctoral positions in Sweden, the two-year research training position after having completed the doctorate degree, for which there is intense competition, nearly 78% were born outside Sweden, according to Sofia Berlin Kolm, analyst at UKÄ, who helped to prepare the annual report.

Of post-doctoral researchers with a foreign background, 36% were working in natural sciences, 35% in medical and health sciences and 15 % were active in engineering and technology. More than one in five, or 22% worked at Karolinska Institute, 11% at Uppsala University and 10% at Chalmers University of Technology.

These figures have generated controversy in Sweden, but according to Agneta Bladh, the special investigator on internationalisation of higher education, the international inflow of academic staff “is a positive sign, not least the post-docs, being here for a shorter period and thereby giving good prerequisites for future research collaboration with Swedish researchers. International research environments are good for the research quality”.

She is more concerned, however, over the near doubling in the proportion of doctoral students who are international students over the past decade.

In 2018 17,370 doctoral students were registered and 36% of these were international students, up from 19% in 2007. Among the 3,080 persons starting a doctoral degree in 2018, 1,300 (42%) were from abroad.

Foreign citizens are selecting natural sciences and technological studies to a much greater extent than Swedes. In 2018, 560 Swedes started their doctoral degree in natural sciences and technology, compared to 800 from abroad; while in the social sciences and the humanities 150 Swedes started their doctorate, compared to 70 international students.

Warning sign

Bladh told University World News: “The high number of international PhD students is a warning sign. Do the Swedes not compete successfully with their international fellow applicants or are the Swedes not interested in research education?

“This has to be discussed inside the academia itself, as we need good PhDs who will contribute to the development of the Swedish higher education sector, to the Swedish business sector as well as to other parts of society.”

UKÄ reported that in 2018 Swedish universities and university colleges operated on a total budget of SEK74 billion (US$7.8 billion), where SEK58 billion (US$6 billion) was awarded from the government. “With 400,000 students and a staff of 74,000 this is now the largest governmental sector in Sweden,” UKÄ said.

“Persons of foreign origin are now performing well in Sweden,” UKÄ reported. “Those born outside Sweden are embarking upon higher education to a larger degree compared to those born in Sweden.”

Sweden has accepted far more migrants than any other European country as a proportion of its population.

In 2018, 76,180 staff were employed at Swedish higher education institutions, including doctoral students, and 35% of teaching and research staff were either born outside Sweden or by parents both born abroad. Among professors and university lecturers specifically, the percentage was 28% and 26% respectively.

Post-doc ratio ‘natural’

Professor Henrik Cederquist, vice rector of the faculty of natural sciences at Stockholm University, told University World News: “I consider the dominance of non-Swedish post-docs as being very natural. The whole idea with post-doctoral experience is that young researchers should get to work in a different scientific environment than the one where the PhD was taken. Therefore many ambitious Swedish PhDs do their post-doc abroad. If anything, I would have expected the number to be even higher.”

But concern has been raised about the numbers of doctoral students because, as reported by University World News, the majority of the international doctoral students are leaving Sweden a few years after graduation.

This is worrying the government. Minister for Higher Education and Research Matilda Ernkrans said to Aftonbladet, a major Swedish newspaper: “This is of course not good. We want to retain the important competence they have here in Sweden so that we can keep up being a leading research country. The working conditions for researchers is one of the most important areas for me in the research policy."

Two thirds of the international students (860 out of 1,300) were admitted at six higher education institutions: KTH Royal Institute of Technology (190), Lund University (160), Karolinska Institute (140), Uppsala University (140), Stockholm University (120) and Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg (110).

The total number of students paying tuition fees in 2017-18 was 7,030, an increase of 24% compared to the year before. Some 23% or 1,700 of the tuition fee-paying students received a grant for the fees and for 61% of these the grant covered all the tuition fees.

In the academic year 2017-18, 59,130 students were awarded a degree at the basic or advanced level. Of these 14% had studied abroad during the previous twelve terms, a 1% reduction compared with the year before, illustrating the gap between international students coming in and Swedes going out.