tuition fees have drastically reduced applications from students outside the EU

Attracting foreign students back to Sweden

4:13 min

Since Sweden brought in tuition fees last fall for foreign students to study at universities here, the number of applications from outside the EU has plummeted.

While many agree that students coming from abroad have much to contribute to the learning environment here, the dilemma is how to convince them to come now, despite the charges.

This was the first school year that students coming from overseas – beyond the EU, the European Economic Area and Switzerland – had to pay to get a degree from a Swedish university. While it was free to attend before, now coming here for an education generally means forking over anywhere between about US$14,000 and US$37,000 a year.

Why the change? A press release from the center-right government explained that Sweden was one of very few countries to offer free education to all foreign students, and that it should compete on the same terms as universities in the countries with which Sweden wants to be compared.

The Minister for Higher Education and Research at the time, Tobias Krantz of the Liberals, said he believed it was inappropriate for taxpayers to bankroll the studies of foreign students, whose numbers at Swedish universities had tripled in a decade, to just over eight percent of Sweden's student population.

The fees were also supported by the opposition Social Democrats from the center left.

While lawmakers allocated scholarship money to help some students with the costs, the number of applicants nevertheless dropped dramatically, and this was in part expected. The pool of foreign applicants to Swedish masters and international courses shriveled to about 25 percent of what it had been the year before fees were introduced.

At a recent debate in Stockholm on the future of education, most of the panelists agreed that attracting more foreign students back would be a good thing. President of the union Akademikerförbundet SSR, Christin Johansson, told Radio Sweden that especially in light of globalization, Sweden stands a lot to gain from foreign students who come here, make connections with Swedes and then continue wherever their path takes them.

She feels that both Swedish and foreign students have a richer experience when they study at the same university.

Anna Neuman, a political advisor with the Liberals, said that while more grant money is available now than before, universities still have to market themselves to these students who want to come to Sweden independently.

But even if universities are successful in attracting foreign students and convincing them that the money is worth it – that a Swedish education can compete with an American, Japanese or British one, then there is still another problem: where to live.

Erik Arroy, the vice president of Stockholm University's student union, said that finding a place to live should be easier for students, citing a housing shortage which he says is so accute that some students are forced to live in tents when the term begins.

Despite the challenges, new statistics suggest that foreign students are warming a little to Swedish universities. While still nowhere near the previous heights, more students applied this year for the fall term than the year before. Anna Neuman of the Liberals said she hopes this trend continues.