Internationalisation goal set to be missed, says report

The goal set for 2025 of ensuring that at least one in every four Swedish students has studied abroad by the time they graduate will be missed unless the Ministry of Education and Research and higher education institutions take stronger action, a new report says.

Commissioned by Swedish International Students and Alumni (SISA) and Swedes Worldwide (SVIV), which between them serve 660,000 Swedes working, studying and living abroad, the report says the government’s internationalisation report, published in 2018, has been left to gather dust and is not being acted upon by the ministry of most higher education institutions.

As a result, the proportion of Swedish students studying abroad for a part of their degree at home has remained constant at 15% since 2002.

The report “How do we get every fourth Swedish student to study abroad?” (in Swedish), written by Adrian Stymne, Hanna Waerland-Feger and John Martinsson, in addition to providing statistics on study abroad, brings together interviews with educational officers at those institutions that are ahead of the others, reports from students who have been studying abroad and a summary of research on the benefits of having studied abroad, for the students and for society.

Sweden lagging behind

“In spite of the advantages, relatively few Swedes are studying abroad. Only every seventh student (15%) that graduated in 2019 had studied abroad as a part of the degree taken in Sweden,” the report says.

It adds that neighbouring countries are doing significantly better: In Finland every fourth student has studied abroad (24%) and in Germany every third (33%). It says it is disappointing that the proportion of Swedes studying abroad has not changed since 2002.

“And this is despite the European Union in 2011 agreeing on the goal that every member state should increase this share to every fifth student by 2020,” the report said.

By contrast, the report says the original internationalisation report had excellent proposals for funding and supporting all Swedish higher education institutions in their international work.

The authors say the government has to act on these proposals.

“In particular in some studies – such as teacher training and other professional degrees – there is a need for political support to increase the very low proportion of students going abroad today.”

They argue that with the United States having made it difficult for graduated foreigners to get a work permit and the United Kingdom doubling tuition fees for EU citizens post-Brexit, Sweden has a chance to become an attractive alternative.

They say that with world trade taking a hit after COVID-19, international students will become an even more attractive alternative way to build trade relations.

“Not to act now is to risk becoming expensive: when universities and students become more risk conscious after COVID-19, political will shall be needed to ensure the doors are kept open. The government and the supporting political parties should at the soonest opportunity start work on implementing the investigation’s proposals,” the report said.

Huge institutional differences

Only six higher education institutions send out more than 20% of their students to study abroad. These are the Stockholm School of Economics (48%), KTH Royal Institute of Technology (31%), Lund University (28%), Jönköping University (23%), Chalmers University of Technology (22%) and Uppsala University (21%).

Thirteen universities send out fewer than 10% of their students.

The report makes four recommendations for the universities and three for the government.

It says universities should:

• Set the goal that in the year 2025, 25% of those graduating shall have had a study period abroad.

• Develop collaborative arrangements: Participate in more partnerships and networks.

• Work harder to ensure that all of their courses have a ‘mobility window’.

• Invest more in ensuring that all participants in professional degree programmes are given the opportunity to study abroad.

It says the government and the authorities should:

• Follow-up the proposals in the internationalisation investigation (of 2017 to 2018) and create a platform for promoting internationalisation at Swedish higher education institutions.

• Give the Swedish Council for Higher Education firm and transparent responsibility for promoting study abroad.

• Create a better documentation base for higher education institutions to draw upon when seeking to identify barriers towards implementing study-abroad mechanisms.

Agneta Bladh, the government special investigator for internationalisation 2017-18 and former secretary of state (1998-2004) and member of the European Commission High Level Group on Modernisation of Higher Education (2012-14), told University World News: “The SISA-SVIV report is a very good reminder of some parts in the governmental internationalisation reports I delivered more than two years ago. The new report emphasises the outgoing mobility of Swedish students.”

She said that in the recently delivered research and innovation bill, the government has accepted the new wording of the Swedish Higher Education Act, as proposed by the committee she chaired, which says that universities’ international work should contribute to increased research quality.

“However, even if it is positive that the Swedish government recognises the importance of international collaboration in order to enhance the quality of higher education and research, it is also important to act in order to enlarge student mobility from and to Sweden.”

She said this is important economically for a country with such a high export dependency as Sweden and urged the government to take further action on the many proposals in her 2018 report.

Extend support for internationalisation

Astrid Söderbergh Widding, vice-chancellor at Stockholm University, said the need to strengthen the university’s work to promote student exchanges has been identified as strategically important and many departments have asked for greater central support.

“This means that we will upgrade the work at our study department but also work with businesses to extend support for internationalisation.”

Linn Svärd, vice-president of the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS), which has 342,000 members, told University World News that many SFS leaders spent a long time trying to influence the 2018 report and “we would like to see a majority of the recommendations implemented”.

Tuula Kuosmanen, director of the Department for Policy Analysis at the Swedish Council for Higher Education and chair of the Forum for Internationalisation, which includes representatives from government agencies, student and university organisations and ministries involved in higher education, told University World News that, even though the government has so far not implemented the proposals in the remit, it “has influenced the work of the higher education institutions in Sweden”.

Sweden regrets UK leaving Erasmus+

One particular issue creating a new obstacle to Swedish study abroad is the decision of the United Kingdom not to participate in Erasmus+, the student and staff study and exchange scheme, post-Brexit.

Research by University World News found that 17% of the outgoing Swedish exchange and free-mover students – almost 4,000 in 2018-19 – were going to the UK and Northern Ireland.

Among leading voices warning about the effects of Brexit for Sweden and beyond is Adrian Stymne, president of SISA, and one of the authors of the report. He told University World News: “Students from Sweden will lose a popular study destination now that the UK has left the EU and Erasmus+. As such, it is even more important that universities and government take proactive steps to ensure that more students have the opportunity to study abroad.”

Lisa Irenius, culture editor of Svenska Dagbladet, wrote in this newspaper that it would now become more cumbersome and more expensive for EU students to study in the UK.

“Brexit is a great loss also for other Europeans – the UK has several of the best universities in Europe, and for Swedes it has always been the most popular destination for Erasmus exchanges.”

She said the term ‘cultural vandalism’ (which was used by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon) “is a powerful expression, and describes precisely the form of destruction that is going on. And it is primarily hitting the young, of whom a significant majority in the UK voted for remaining in the European Union.”

Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden (1991-94) and minister of foreign affairs (2006-14), described the decision as a “deliberate political move to limit the links between young people in the UK and other European countries. It aims to cut loose from the rest of Europe for the future as well.”