International student numbers up 13% despite COVID-19

There has been a 13% increase in international student admissions to Swedish universities despite the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing restrictions and risks involved in travelling between countries.

According to the Swedish Institute, the number of international admissions has risen to 27,329 in 2020-21, up from 24,099 in 2019-20, based on data from the Swedish Council of Higher Education.

“Given all the hurdles related both to international mobility caused by the current pandemic and to the delayed residence permits process, it’s remarkable to see such positive numbers,” said Douglas Washburn, marketing manager for Study in Sweden*, an official resource for prospective and current international students provided by the Swedish Institute.

Sweden offers more than 1,000 English-taught programmes. Some of the most popular subjects are engineering and IT, life sciences and business. Sweden also has a strong reputation in design and areas such as international relations and human rights.

“International students are not only critical in terms of helping the Swedish economy recover from the corona[virus] crisis, they are also an important source of skilled labour for Swedish companies and they provide an important international dimension to classrooms at Swedish universities,” said Washburn.

In 2018-19 new fee-paying international students contributed SEK1.1 billion (about US$122 million) to the Swedish economy, the institute estimated, based on the tuition fees in Sweden for international students and the Migration Agency’s calculation on the living costs in Sweden.

“We have roughly 4,500 new international fee-paying students per year and about 60% of the [revenue] comes from tuition fees and the rest from the money they spend in Sweden,” a spokesperson for the Swedish Institute told University World News.

She said the total impact of new international students is far higher.

The economic impact on the Swedish economy of all international students in 2018-19 (the most recent year for which there are official numbers) is estimated at around SEK3.9 billion and includes only tuition fees paid to Swedish universities and an estimation of living expenses spent in Sweden.

The figure comprises SEK2.16 billion in living expenses for 25,374 degree students, SEK0.66 billion in living expenses for 13,004 exchange students and SEK1.04 billion in tuition fees from 8,053 international fee-paying students. This does not include additional contributions from students paying taxes on any part-time jobs they hold.

Global interest

The interest in studying in Sweden is global, with students coming from more than 117 countries, with the biggest representation of students from Finland, India and China.

When asked why they chose to study in Sweden, a majority of the more than 10,000 international students surveyed by the Swedish Institute pointed out the country’s lifestyle and the open, progressive values.

The focus on equal rights, LGBTQ (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer) rights and sustainability are as important as excellent education at an affordable cost.

Over the past few years, Sweden as a study destination has developed an appealing reputation as a safe and modern country with a unique work-life balance, along with a lack of hierarchy and strong sense of equality, which is often reflected in classrooms, the Swedish Institute’s survey of international students found.

“Sweden is known for its genuine equality, irrespective of class, gender, country and even sexual preferences,” Samhita from India, studying business intelligence at Dalarna University, in Falun and Borlänge, 200km northwest of Stockholm, said in the survey.

“When I looked for studies abroad, I researched about the growth of IT and saw that the informatics sector is doing so well here,” said Samhita.

“Apart from having the most cutting-edge innovations professionally, I knew that prioritising citizens’ rights is a core value in Sweden. I heard from friends that importance is given to people’s time and hobbies, the quality of life, and work-life balance in Sweden.”

Lund sees rapid rise in Chinese students

Professor Sylvia Schwaag-Serger, deputy vice-chancellor of Lund University, which receives the most international students, told University World News that the number of Chinese students at the institution had almost doubled.

“While exchange students have decreased – primarily due to the fact that partner universities in Europe, North America and Asia suspended exchange programmes due to COVID-19 – we have seen an increase in international students at undergraduate and postgraduate level compared to the previous year,” she said.

“The number of Chinese students grew by 45%, which is remarkable, whereas the number of Indian students dropped significantly, probably partly due to the lockdown, which made it hard for students to leave the country.”

Schwaag-Serger said Lund has worked in numerous ways to prevent a significant drop in foreign students as a result of the pandemic.

“We have offered more scholarships. We have admitted more students than we would normally do. We have increased our direct communication with prospective students to answer any questions they may have. And we have a good cooperation with the Swedish migration board to ensure smooth handling of visas and residence permits,” she said.

She said that, so far, Sweden has been able to keep its universities open during the pandemic, with varying degrees of online teaching in accordance with the authorities’ recommendations.

“We have also been able to offer hardship scholarships to international students affected by travel restrictions and lockdowns in the spring and summer,” Schwaag-Serger added.

“I believe that these efforts undertaken by many Swedish universities, combined with a favourable image of Sweden as an open, tolerant, equal country with a high quality of life have ensured that Sweden’s attractiveness as a destination for international students remains strong.”

She said bolstering international student numbers was particularly welcome in “these times of shared global challenges – such as COVID-19 and climate change but also increasing nationalism, populism and isolationism”.

“Universities need to strive more than ever to maintain internationalisation of research and teaching,” Schwaag-Serger said.

Karolinska buoyed by influx

Rector of Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, told University World News: “Never before have we had so many new students on our international programmes. This year we see a 25% increase in the number of students from third [or non-EU-EEA] countries. We welcome this development, not least because our international students bring new perspectives to campus and enrich the discussions in our classrooms.”

He said the increase is not fuelled by an influx from one or a few countries but rather reflects a more general increase across the board.

New recruits emphasise KI’s reputation and ranking as a decisive factor for choosing the university, he added.

“Additional factors might have contributed. For example, the Swedish krona has been relatively weak, making living in Sweden more affordable.”

Swedish pandemic reaction

The former state secretary and special investigator for internationalisation of higher education in Sweden 2017-18, Agneta Bladh, told University World News she believes there are several reasons why international student interest in studying in Sweden has stayed strong, despite the pandemic.

She said the first is that many students who usually choose to study in the US and in Australia may be finding it more difficult to enter these countries.

But another factor may be the Swedish approach to the pandemic.

“Swedish society has been open, with no strict lockdown, although there exist several guidelines on how to behave,” she said. “The strategy has been quite stable over time with the same restrictions and recommendations and no rapid changes. The stability in the Swedish approach to the pandemic might be attractive [to international students].”

She thinks another reason is that universities have tried to treat freshmen and international students in a more traditional way compared to older students.

“Campus is often open to these students, while older students have more online classes. Those universities having only online courses have not increased their international students,” Bladh said.

The rise in numbers was unexpected, however, after a TT newswire survey published in late August predicted at least 2,800 fewer foreign exchange students would arrive in the country compared with last year, based on answers from 17 universities, as reported by the Local.se.

* Studyinsweden.se is a comprehensive, official resource on higher education in Sweden for prospective and current international students, built and maintained by the Swedish Institute, a public agency tasked with promoting Sweden abroad.