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Colleges struggle to diversify ranks

Published onsdag 8 juni 2016 kl 07.26
Education Authority: Imbalance exists even before uni
(4:51 min)
Claudio Bresciani / TT
Södertörn University, south of Stockholm. The school works actively towards building a culturally diverse student body, but 70 percent of its students are women. Photo: Claudio Bresciani / TT.

Even though tuition is financed through taxes, certain groups of people have been undrepresented in Sweden's universities for years. But while a law requires colleges to actively diversify their ranks, they can't consider the gender, ethnicity, or geographic origin when admitting students.

"They are supposed to foster equality of opportunity and broaden recruitment in all the different meanings; gender, social background and immigrant status and things like that," said Marie Kahlroth, an analyst at the Swedish Higher Education Authority and the editor for an annual report that called attention to the continued underrepresentation of certain groups.

Only four out of ten students who enrolled last year were men, and Kahlroth believes this is less than the international average. Why this is the case, she is not sure, but guesses that Sweden - unlike other countries - considers some work training programs as higher education, like for example nursing which has a gender imbalance associated with the profession.

Kahlroth said it's difficult for universities to do anything about gender imbalances, which have socio-economic roots and are often evident already in high school level programs.

That could also be the case for another underrepresented group, young people who come from families with no higher education. Among 25-year-olds whose parents had no high school education, only two of ten continued university studies.

But when it comes to diversifying classes, colleges can do little in the admissions process. Generally, students are admitted to programs based on three things: grades, national test scores, and so-called "other merits", which might include work experience.

By law a college cannot choose based on gender, ethnicity, or geographic location. But they can find ways of encouraging those groups to apply in the first place.

"They can go to different upper secondary schools and try to recruit pupils from neighborhoods where students normally don't go to the universities," said Kahlroth.

Immigrants are also underrepresented at university, but not all immigrants. Students with immigrant backgrounds who entered the Swedish school system before the age of seven are in fact more likely to go to college than young people with Swedish parents.

One school that counts itself as a success when it comes to cultural diversity is the Södertörn University, which was founded in 1996. Malin Sigvardson, who manages the student department at Södertörn, told Radio Sweden that the school aimed for cultural diversity already from the start when choosing to place its campus in a suburb of Stockholm.

"When the school was started it was a strategic choice to place the school here in Södertörn in the south of Stockholm because this was and still is an area that is culturally diverse," said Sigvarson. "What one wanted to do was to ease the transition from secondary education to tertiary education."

Sigvardson said they aren't allowed to profile their student body according to ethnicity. But she said the school still works actively to diversify enrollment by visiting local high schools in multi-cultural neighborhoods.

Södertörn also runs a summer school for students from two disadvantaged areas, hoping to entice some to enroll. And Sigvardsson said the record influx of refugees has prompted the school to hire a project manager devoted to integration and diversity.

But Södertörns has had less success when it comes to gender. Sigvardson said women comprise about 70 percent of the student body.

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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