On a return trip to Sweden to visit university campuses and take part in a conference focusing on international student recruitment in Stockholm, NIC MITCHELL tries to see the country through the eyes of a potential student from abroad.

JUNE is a time for celebrating midsummer and some lovely weather in Sweden – even if it is another story when you go there in winter.

And for my last visit, the sun lived up to expectations (most of the time) and I found dashing around four cities in five days stress-free and kind to my wallet.

I was there to talk to Swedish universities about how they could promote the country’s higher education system to the world at large, including the reluctant higher education travellers of Britain

On this occasion, I was conscious of the need to try to see some of the country through the eyes of a potential student from abroad and choose buses and trains rather than taxis and planes as my mode of transport.

And, despite the horror stories about the cost of everything in Sweden, the actual prices I paid for most things, except for the crazy price of beer, was either about the same, or cheaper, than in England.

An all-day train and bus ticket covering the twin cities Linköping and Norrköping in south-east Sweden only cost £15, and that’s a journey about the same length as Leeds to Manchester, or Edinburgh to Glasgow.

And, after being shown round the delightful former mill town of Norrköping by a tremendously positive former Students’ Union Vice-President, a meal for the two of us with soft drinks and coffee came to about £20 in a vegetarian restaurant.

Slide16I readily confess Norrköping, picture above, was the favourite place I visited. It once was a key textile heartland, but today the clever regeneration of its defunct mills and canals makes it what the Lonely Planet calls ‘The envy of industrial has-beens all across Europe’.

With its retro trams and cultural and gastronomic hang-outs fringing city centre waterfalls and locks, it is really something to be behold. Not exactly Venice or Amsterdam, but you get the idea!

At the heart of all this is the showpiece of twin-campus Linköping University – the Visualization Centre C – which is based in what looks like any other old factory building from the outside, but inside houses a very snug and cosy slimmed-down version of the London Planetarium.

We chanced on the start of a 20-minute fascinating simulated journey from the outer reaches of the solar system to the tiniest participle back on earth being screened on the dome above us. Although the commentary was in Swedish, you didn’t need a translation to understand what was going on.

Sweden’s universities – or at least the ones I saw – are very well equipped with plenty of space to expand (it’s a big country) and appear to be supported by positive staff. Indeed, researchers at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research ranked Sweden second only to the United States in terms of the best higher education systems in the world for Universitas 21. Their criteria included higher education’s contribution to economic and social development and providing students with of a high quality experience.

The only downside I could find during my visit was the fall in the number of international students coming from outside the European Union, who were charged tuition fees for the first time last year.

But for British, and other EU students, Swedish universities offer a great deal – no tuition fees for undergraduates and master’s students and a salary of £1,600-a-month for PhD research students.

And it is starting to attract more attention after investing so much in its universities to make sure they can compete with the best. No surprise then, that three of its of younger universities – Umeå, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and Linköping – made it into the Times Higher Education’s new Top 100 Universities in the world tables of universities under 50 (years old).

And the students I talked appeared happy with their experiences:  From Sophie from southern Sweden, a former Student Union rep at Norrköping campus, who insisted that the student voice was heard on everything at her university. To Matthew, from Essex, who stressed that Sweden’s two-year master’s courses were superior to the one-year master’s programmes in the UK because they gave you the chance to absorb the new culture as well as gain a deeper understanding of what you were studying.

As for the Swedes, and I hope they don’t mind me saying this, but I find them like ‘chilled-out Germans’ – if you can get where I’m coming from! They may appear a little shy at first, but they are usually just being polite – and once the ‘ice is broken’ you should get on fine.

The country is clean and efficient, but with a hint of old-world charm, and the economy in the land of innovation is doing much better than most of Europe.

And everyone speaks such good English. There’s sometimes a slight American twang, but there’s no problem in being understood, as a Brit with absolutely zero knowledge of the Swedish.

I tried to see Sweden through student eyes; but if you can afford the splendid Stallmästaregården overlooking the lovely royal park and bay of Brunnsviken, is the place to stay in Stockholm for at least a night or two – or at least call in for a drink or bite to eat.

Perhaps, it is a little too close to the new city motorway, but what a charming combination of home creature comforts and lovely friendly staff – and just 15 minutes away by bus or metro to downtown Stockholm – the magnificent capital on the waterfront.

Yes, if I was 18 or 21 again, I’d certainly think seriously about studying abroad in a country like Sweden – and not just because I’d escape UK tuition fees, but because I would be getting a first-class education, the chance to experience a different culture, and gain a competitive-edge when it came to starting my career.  And I’d be doing this in a country that feels young and optimistic about the next generation of Europeans – and willing to invest in their future!