Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
21st Sep 2012

Sweden on the rebound from tuition fee fallout

The Swedish government made a bold move last year when it introduced tuition fees for non-EU and non-EEA/Switzerland students. ICEF Monitor takes an in-depth look at the impact it's had, and the steps the country is taking to ensure that Sweden maintains its appeal on the international scene.

Recent changes to the system

Before the 2011-12 academic session, Swedish universities had been entirely taxpayer funded. Today PhD programmes are still free, but a change in the law took effect in August 2011 requiring undergraduates and masters students from outside the EU to pay tuition. According to the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskolverket), in 2009 there were approximately 36,000 foreign students in Sweden, with half of them from outside the EU. The introduction of tuition fees caused the total number of new foreign student enrolments to drop by a third between 2010 and 2011 from 22,100 to 14,700. Much of the decline consisted of "freemovers" – students who choose to come to Sweden on their own accord, rather than as part of an organised exchange programme – from non-European countries. The agency's Torbjörn Lindqvist told The Local:

"China accounts for the largest drop in terms of the number of students enrolling, but in terms of percentages, some countries [developing nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, India, Nepal, and Thailand] have seen their enrolments almost disappear completely."

"In some ways, [the drop] 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," he said. At the same time, a Swedish education is still free for EU students, which might mean an influx from UK students is on the horizon, given the tuition hike spreading across the UK. Already, Lund University in the south of Sweden has seen a 30% increase in UK applicants this past year. Furthermore, to help keep the pipeline open, the Swedish Institute, a public agency charged with attracting students to Sweden, began offering academic scholarships. For the 2011-12 academic session the Institute administered about 500, with a certain number earmarked for students from developing nations. Close to 100 million kronor (US $15 million) has been set aside by the Swedish government for scholarships to help cover the cost of tuition fees for non-European students, and according to the higher education agency, about 40% (831 students) of tuition-paying students received scholarships last year that covered some or all of their tuition fees. A handful of other scholarships available to master’s and PhD candidates from developing nations were administered directly by the Swedish government, through the universities themselves, and through the EU’s Erasmus Mundus programme.

Sweden's focused outreach

The tactic is working - fast forward a year and the total number of master’s applicants for the 2012-13 academic session showed a substantial increase over 2011-12. For instance, Lund University saw its applications increase by 23%, the Karolinska Institutet received a 50% increase in applications, and Stockholm University was up 30%. But the increase is not only due to scholarship offers. At Stockholm University, Rector Kåre Bremer believes the increase in international applications is the result of an extensive marketing campaign at several universities abroad. The largest number of foreign master’s applicants were from the UK, Germany, China, Bangladesh, the US, and Ethiopia (in that order). Furthermore, Stockholm University's Bremer has also announced that he will allocate SEK100 million (US $13 million) in funds to enhance internationalisation, focusing on research mobility and international students. In addition, the Swedish Institute’s Niklas Tranæus told University World News:

“It is clear that international recruitment efforts have had an effect. Up until now Swedish higher education institutions have spent very little resources on international marketing and recruitment.”

Swedish universities now have three strategic objectives: to broaden the number and quality of applicants from Europe who do not have to pay tuition fees; to compete globally for tuition fee-eligible students; and to recruit more Swedish students to the programmes. "Increasing one’s visibility in the global education market takes time and Sweden is far from a well-known study destination, so the effect should be even more notable in a few years time.” said Tranæus. Daniel Guhr, head of Illuminate Consulting Group, has advised several Swedish universities on their strategies to attract international tuition fee-paying students.

Guhr said Swedish universities should seek more international alliances, focusing on ties to industry to offer internships and job placements, opening up new recruiting channels through agents or pathways programmes, and engaging with social media.

“It is noteworthy that universities which made an effort to actively recruit and which invested in marketing activities have done disproportionally well. This includes large universities such as Lund, but also a small school such as the Jönköping International Business School,” he said. “The rise of application numbers highlights that the argument that Swedish tuition fees are prohibitively high has been misguided. Tuition fees of course impact application numbers, but not to the extent often claimed,” he said. Guhr believes the next few years are likely to produce changed mobility patterns. For example, the rise in applications from the UK is mirrored by a rise in applications to Dutch (English language) programmes and to well-funded US higher education institutions. Similarly, Greek students who might have chosen the US or UK in the past can also be expected to apply to tuition-free degree programmes across Europe in larger numbers, he said. Swedish institutions are also becoming more active in marketing the country at international education conventions like the European Higher Education Fair, held in Jakarta, Indonesia. And the government has maintained bi-lateral exchange initiatives, such as the Visby and Nordplus Programmes, geared toward student exchanges with Baltic and Nordic countries. The Swedish government and Swedish Institute hope to offer more scholarships each year, and the recruitment efforts of the entire university sector figure to become increasingly robust.

Sweden's strong reputation

Because Swedish institutions receive a government subsidy for international students recruited, each foreign applicant can generate additional income for a school. However, all these initiatives aimed at attracting students are more than a matter of keeping enrolments up or subsidy coffers filled, but of helping Sweden maintain its reputation - and actual position - as one of the most innovative and dynamic societies in the world. For example:

  • Sweden enjoys an 81.5% employment rate for all levels of education – the second highest rate of all OECD countries after Iceland.
  • Some 10% of 15-29 year-olds in Sweden are neither in education nor employed (NEET) – one of the smallest percentage of NEETs among all OECD countries.
  • Sweden spends US $11,400 per student from primary to tertiary education, more than the OECD average of US $9,249.
  • Some 7.3% of Sweden’s GDP is devoted to spending on education, while the OECD average is 5.8%.
  • Today Sweden ranks first on the GCI (Global Creativity Index), which measures creativity and prosperity.
  • It ranks second in the area of innovation.
  • The World Economic Forum ranks it second globally in competitiveness.
  • It has a high ratio of research and development personnel, which is another measure of innovation.
  • It leads in four of the 10 pillars of the Networked Readiness Index, and appears in the top 10 of a further five.
  • In non-economic matters, the country performs exceptionally well in OECD’s Better Life Index measuring general contentment.

All of these remarkable results are understood to relate on some level to higher education, to producing citizens equipped to function at the leading edge of their chosen fields. Meanwhile, international students bring in diverse ideas, as well as new forms of creativity, and their presence acts as a barometer for educational systems, with demand equating to good standing and efficient function.

Sweden's international appeal

A Swede would say, “Världen kommer till Sverige,” or, “The world comes to Sweden.” A stroll around a typical Swedish city would reveal the truth of such a sentiment, with more than 13% of all Swedish residents having been born abroad. On Swedish university campuses, diversity is even higher. According to Thomas Lindqvist of the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskoleverket), despite the drop in foreign student enrolments, the percentage of new international student enrolment in 2011 was a healthy 21%, and 18% of academic faculty have foreign backgrounds. There are good reasons why Sweden is a desired destination for foreign students. Perhaps the most important is that the country’s universities are top flight, with many counting themselves among the finest in Europe. This level of quality means that Swedish degrees are given high recognition internationally, and a number of institutions have strong reputations in business and technology. And these facts are well understood by prospective students - a survey by Högskoleverket reveals that half of free movers want to study in Sweden in order to improve their career opportunities. This can be seen more directly in the discussion forum of thelocal.se, a highly-trafficked Swedish website that houses an extensive compendium of educational news in English. Discussion threads on thelocal.se show that graduates and professors are in broad agreement that Swedish degrees are rigorous and that the curricula are well designed. In effect, Swedish universities have good word-of-mouth. Language compatibility is another factor that attracts international students. Though undergraduate studies require Swedish, many master’s level courses are taught in English - more than 400 at last count and the number is steadily on the rise, doubling in just the last four years alone. Sweden boasts a per-institution average of 15 English-taught master’s programmes, which is third most among the countries of mainland Europe (The Netherlands and Germany precede it). Finally, Sweden is setting its sights on the popular STEM sector in an effort to boost the country's corps of capable engineers, with the government budgeting for 400 new spots for engineering students at Sweden's universities next year.

"Sweden is and will remain an industrial nation. We're dependent on educating many talented engineers," education minister Jan Björklund of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) told the TT news agency.

According to the autumn budget proposal, the additional engineering spots will cost around SEK 214 million (US $32 million) by 2018, by which time a total of 1,600 new places for civil engineering students will be created, the business daily Dagens Industri reported. Furthermore, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has announced the country's largest ever investment in life sciences as a key element of the ruling coalition's autumn budget and research and innovation bill. The package totals some US $1.7 billion over the next 4 years of which US $320 million is devoted to the life sciences.

Sweden showing good resilience to the crisis

In the autumn budget announced yesterday, SEK 57.1 million (approximately € 6.730 million) has been earmarked for education and academic research in 2013, which is higher than previous years: SEK 53.3 (2010), SEK 53.6 (2011), SEK 54.5 (2012 forecast). Editor's Note: in October, Sweden announced a further expansion of its already massive investments in higher education and research. A new proposal is to add a further € 450 million (US $589 million) to the total budgets, representing an increase of 30% between 2009 and 2016. Sweden's GDP grew at 3.9% last year; this year, the expected growth is 1.6%. Uncertainty about the global economy and a lack of sustainable solutions to the debt crisis in the euro area has caused growth to slow a bit, making households and businesses less willing to consume and invest, and reducing demand for Swedish export products. Next year the economy is expected to turn upwards again, with GDP increasing by 2.7%, a slightly higher growth rate than the government believed in the previous forecast presented in the Spring Fiscal Policy Bill. In the following years, the economy is expected to grow at a healthy rate, averaging 3.4% over the period 2012-2016. Compared with many other EU countries, however, Sweden has shown good resilience to the crisis. The government's overall assessment is that the measures in the budget for 2013 will result in approximately 0.4% higher GDP growth and approximately 17,000 more people employed in 2014 than if these measures had not been taken. When you add it all up - diversity, high level institutions, respected degrees, the possibility of studying in English, and good prospects for employment after obtaining a degree - it’s easy to see why international students have their sights on Sweden.

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