Foreign-born Swedes perform worse in university admissions test

3:31 min

Nearly 88,000 people have registered for the Swedish university admissions test SweSAT (Högskoleprovet) this Saturday but those with immigrant backgrounds may be at a disadvantage.

SweSAT, or Högskoleprovet in Swedish, is a standardised test and is one way to gain admission to higher education in Sweden. Student can also be accepted to universities based on their high school grades.

Apart from one section, which tests English-language skills, the exam is taken in Swedish and it is the language that forms the greatest barrier for those with foreign backgrounds, says Per-Erik Lyrén, the programme manager for the team that develops the SweSAT test at Umeå University in northern Sweden.

“We did a study on those who took the test in 2011 and 2012 and we could see that those with foreign-born parents did relatively poorly,” Lyrén tells Radio Sweden. “The difference is larger in the verbal section of the test than in the quantitative section.”

The SweSAT is divided into four quantitative sections and four verbal sections. The verbal parts test reading comprehension and vocabulary – and this is where Swedes with immigrant backgrounds tend to be at a disadvantage.

“The differences are really not that large in the quantitative section but they are quite distinct in the verbal section,” says Lyrén, who also points out that the quantitative parts require good language skills as well since they include mathematic examples, diagrams, and data that need to be understood, analysed and solved.

“If you aren't very good in Swedish, then you are going to face problems taking the test,” says Lyrén.

While there have been some discussions in the past about translating the SweSAT to other languages, there are currently no plans for doing so, according to Lyrén. He points out that it would be both expensive and complex. While some sections can be directly translated, other sections bring up culturally specific contexts and since it's a standardised test, offering different versions of it would create problems when it comes to comparing results and grading.

Since the data, maps and situations described in the questions are authentic - that is, they are real-life examples - the more familiar you are with Swedish society, the more likely you are to comprehend the questions and tasks set out in the test.

“For example, in the Swedish reading comprehension test there may be texts about things that are specific to Swedish society, like texts about how wages are agreed upon in Sweden,” explains Lyrén.

It is hard to know just how many people with immigrant backgrounds - that is people who are born abroad or who have one or two foreign-born parents - actually take the exam.

“We don't have any good statistics in that respect. We do know that we have a number of people who take the test who don't have a Swedish social-security number. They are most likely born in another country,” says Lyrén.

Those who register for the exam have to state whether or not they have a Swedish social-security number, also known as a personal identity number, and, according to the Swedish Council for Higher Education, out of the nearly 88,000 people who have registered for this Saturday's SweSAT, a total 677 lack social-security numbers.