It is not just England where much of the buzz around higher education is about tuition fees. For Sweden has started charging non-EU/EEA students around €10,000-a-year and the consequences could be far-reaching, as NIC MITCHELL finds out.

SWEDEN has had one of the best-resourced higher education systems for years, with Universitas 21 – a global network of leading research universities – putting the country second only to the US among the ‘best’ providers of higher education in the world. (1)

And the country’s excellent, well-funded research system means it beats Germany in the European Commission’s Innovation Union Scorecard.

On top of that ten of Sweden’s universities also regularly appear in the world rankings published by the Times Higher Education and the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities.

So, is everything smelling sweet in the Swedish higher education rose garden?

Well, not exactly!

Tuition fees for non-Europeans

Sweden’s claim to be a leading supporter of third-world development took a big knock when Parliament decided to start charging ‘full-cost’ tuition fees to new international students from outside Europe.

Up to 2011, higher education had been free to both Swedes and overseas students and the country was proving a popular destination for young global talent, particularly from developing nations in Asia and Africa.

But at a stroke, students from outside the EU/EEA were told to find over €10,000 a year to study for a bachelor’s or masters degree at a Swedish university – or apply for one of the very limited scholarships that the government introduced to try to soften the blow.

The level of the fees meant that studying in Sweden suddenly became almost as expensive as going to a UK or US university for thousands of Indian, Pakistani, African and Chinese students.

The result was a fall of nearly 80% in newly enrolled non-EU students for the start of the 2011/12 academic year – a drop from 7,600 to just 1,600 in such students in just 12 months, according to the Higher Education in Sweden 2013 Status report. (2)

State of shock

Swedish universities were in a state of shock. They had spent a decade developing two-year international master’s courses, taught in English, to satisfy growing home and global demand and help Swedish universities become major international players by adapting programmes to the Bologna system.

Universities, such as Linköping University (LiU), focusing on economically important areas of science and engineering, were attracting a healthy number of international students.

International classroom at LiU

International classroom at LiU

Suddenly, they were forced to beef-up their limited marketing resources and compete in the increasingly competitive global higher education market having lost one of their trump cards – free education.

Thankfully, PhD students can still study for free!

Sweden’s introduction of fees for those outside Europe followed a similar move by Denmark in 2006, when non-EU/EEA student numbers fell from 1,528 in 2005 to 995 to 2006 – a 33% decline. (3)

So, Swedish universities had an idea what was coming.

Focus on quality

A spokesperson for the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education told the Stockholm-based news outlet, The Local, in May last year, that foreign student enrolments were expected to decline in the wake of introducing tuition fees. “In some ways, that was the point; not the reduction in itself, but as education minister Jan Björklund has explained, the fees are meant to focus on quality as the main attraction of studying in Sweden, rather than it being free.”

Bold show of confidence

International education commentator Dan Thomas said the move was a ‘bold show of confidence in Swedish HE’. However, he felt it was clumsily implemented. “Not only are the new fees among the highest in Europe but they also come with one of the most expensive application fees in the world – a non-refundable 900 SEK (€100) and Sweden’s universities were given little time to prepare.”

Swedish academics agree. Political scientist Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Uppsala University, said: “We definitely want more international students. To many of us it is strange that our politicians on the one hand emphasize internationalisation as a main objective in all sorts of contexts, and at the same time ‘de-internationalised” higher education.

“Charging tuition from non-European students might have been legitimate if the government had invested funds in scholarships that non-European students could apply for to finance studies in Sweden.

“Moreover, people worry that charging tuition from non-European students might lower the threshold to institute tuition for Swedish students.”

Responding to new environment

Internationalisation penetrates the ambitions of many Swedish universities and is important for recruiting postgraduate students and research as well as various rankings, said Kjell Carli from KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

“It is important not only for the multicultural student experience on campus, but also as a constant reminder of the global impact of education and research”, adds Sweden’s senior EUPRIO representative Tina Zethraeus.

So across the country, universities are responding to the new environment, with one leading institution saying: “Our international marketing spend has gone from zero to millions.”

Most have adopted a twin approach: learning quickly how to develop new markets, such as Brazil and the US, while also putting greater effort into attracting non-fee paying foreign students from other EU countries, notably Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.

They have also worked hard to rebuild bridges to traditional good recruiting grounds, like India, Pakistan, China, and Iran – employing specialist staff and consultants, boosting advertising spend, making more use of social media and student competitions to find the best talent and running ‘Study in Sweden’ national campaigns outside Europe.

Of course, not all universities are so reliant on ‘free-moving’ international students. Luleå in the north speaks for many in saying student exchanges remain a major strength of Swedish HE through Erasmus and international alliances.

However, there is real pressure to increase the modest number of scholarships awarded, with Lund’s Vice-Chancellor Per Eriksson describing them as ‘incredibly important’ to attract fee-paying students.

Funding isn’t everything

But funding isn’t everything, says Niklas Tranaeus, marketing manager for Study in Sweden at the Swedish Institute.

“Scholarships, although very important, are only part of the story. There are other issues which help to explain the sharp decline in numbers and which have been highlighted by universities. To mention a few: the slow and rather cumbersome application process, the importance of allowing students to stay and look for work after they have completed their studies and the inflexible system which regulates how universities can charge fees.

“The government is looking into several of these issues and we think that improvements in these areas will have a significant impact on the numbers of students from countries outside the EU that Swedish universities will be able to recruit in coming years.”

At the Swedish Agricultural Sciences University (SLU), Head of Communications Tina Zethraeus says more must be done to liberalise the post-study work environment for overseas students and overcome the reluctance of Swedish companies to hire foreigners.

Slow recovery

While incoming non-European student numbers made a modest 7% recovery in 2012, after plummeting by 79% in 2011, it was interesting to see more students coming from other EU countries. This follows what happened in Denmark after fees for non-EU students came in.

In the last year of free fees for all – the autumn term of 2010 – Swedish universities saw 7,600 full-time incoming students from outside the EU/EEA with just 1,400 from other EU countries.

Last year saw 1,700 newly enrolled non-European students, but a much more significant rise in incoming students (‘free-movers’ in Swedish) from other EU countries. Their number rose to 2,300 – up 31% on 2011.

With the new academic year just getting underway, universities across Sweden are keenly watching to see just how many international students actually turn-up. More offers were made this year; and significantly, more students paid their application fee for courses starting this autumn. But it is believed a sizeable number of non-EU students were waiting to see the size of any scholarship before booking the flight to Sweden.

Foundations for tomorrow

Tuition fees are not the only issue for Swedish higher education, of course.

At the moment, there is much excitement about a Government bill that could convert public universities into foundations. The Government says it would give higher education institutions greater freedom, allowing them to receive donations without limitation, own companies and accumulate capital and other assets.

Some Vice-Chancellors say it offers fresh opportunities, but the deadline for consultation is 10 October and they want to know more about what it will mean to no longer be part of the State.

The unions are less impressed and Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg says many academics fear the changes will simply increase top management powers and further undermine faculty control. “I don’t think the proposed foundations will increase organisational autonomy. Government will still be in charge of the funding and universities will need to continue to adhere to detailed steering from the Ministry of Education and Cabinet.”

Last words

There is much I have had not had the space to touch on, such as Sweden’s priority of increasing funding for research and third-cycle courses rather than on bachelor’s and masters degrees – after a brief relaxation in student number controls at the start of the recession to ease youth unemployment.

However, before turning off the spotlight on Sweden, I’ll give the last one word to Swedish EUPRIO prize-winner Martin Karlsson, from the University of Boras. He says: “Another big concern for HE in Sweden is something loosely coined as the ‘20-20-20-problem’ – when we are closing in on 2020, there will be 20% less 20 year-olds in our country.”

Main photo: International students at Linköping University quickly master Sweden’s key form of transport.


(1) Universitas 21 national ranking of national higher education systems 2013

(2) Tuition fees for international students – Nordic Practice, Oxford Research for the Nordic Council of Ministers, 2013

(3) How is Sweden recruiting internationally? The PIE News, 30 November 2011:

* Blog by Nic Mitchell

* Photographs thanks to Linköping University (LiU) and Jenny Svennås-Gillner – Swedish Agricultural Sciences University (SLU)


+ THIS BLOG first appeared on the EUPRIO website on Monday 2 September, 2013.