SFI is failing immigrants

SFI language courses aim to promote basic understanding of the Swedish language and society. But, argues Captus's Nima Sanandaji, with low pass rates and politicized content, it fails on both counts.

As a newcomer to Sweden, learning Swedish can be a joy as well as a hassle. In many countries there are a wide range of options available for those eager to learn the local language. But the system in Sweden is very much focused on the free public ‘Svenska för Invandrare’ (‘Swedish for immigrants’) courses, commonly known as SFI.

SFI has been around for more than 40 years and over 50 000 students are currently enrolled. The goal with SFI is to promote basic understanding of the Swedish language and society. Unfortunately, the education does not accomplish either task in a satisfactory way.

Only around half of the immigrants entitled to attend SFI actually start the education. Of these only a third actually finish the course the same year. A number of international studies have shown that although language skills are very good among native Swedes, they are poor among many immigrants. An international survey of 12 different OECD countries has for example shown, with data up to 1998, that fully 20-30 percent of immigrants in Sweden lack basic reading skills.

Adding to the problems, Sveriges Kommuner och Landsting (”The Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions”), concludes that even passing the higher levels of SFI does not necessarily give the students language skills that are adequate for further education or the working market.

SFI is funded by the state but administered by local municipalities. The quality of the education varies very significantly among different municipalities. Among the municipalities that had more than 20 newcomers studying SFI in the academic year of 2003-04 the proportion of those who passed the higher level course after two and a half years of studies varied between 0 and 68 percent. Statistics from 1998 shows that Mölndal municipality spent 33,000 kronor for every student who passed SFI. The neighbouring municipality of Göteborg required fully 290,000 kronor to achieve the same results, although there were almost twice as many teachers per student in Göteborg.

A number of Swedish and international studies show that poor Swedish language skills are hindering immigrants from entering the labour market. This hindrance is all the more serious given that the rigid systems of taxes, welfare benefits and labour market regulations make it difficult for newcomers to start with low salary jobs and work their way up while they learn the language on the job. Obstacles in the labour market and strong labour unions basically mean that immigrants need good basic language skills before they can find their first jobs.

And when it comes to promoting basic understanding of the Swedish society, SFI does so in a very politicized way. Many books used as course literature by SFI are full of references to the wonders of socialism, Swedish social democracy and the benefits of having strong labour unions. Texts supposed to exemplify typical conversation pieces in Swedish society can be based on a conversation where one friend convinces another to join the labour union or when a person comments on the greatness of the Swedish big government system. A text about the normal events of Swedish society can exemplify by how a child is learning the importance of socialist First of May demonstrations from his father.

On the whole there is a lot to improve in SFI if the education is attain its goals of teaching basic language skills to newcomers and promoting understanding of the Swedish society from an apolitical perspective. Today many foreign professionals are able to learn Swedish at work, but the situation for the many immigrants from developing countries is much bleaker.

Nima Sanandaji is president of the Swedish free market think tank Captus and publisher of Captus Magazine. He is currently working on a book on integration policies and SFI education.

He is also co-author of “Välkommen till Sverige! – om politisk snedvridning i kurslitteraturen i SFI, svenska för invandrare” (Timbro) together with Fredrik Segerfeldt and Patrik M Andersson.