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ANALYSIS

Government acts on immigration and education

Sweden Says is a new series in which we look at what the Swedish papers are saying about the major issues making the news in Sweden. This week, David Landes surveys reactions to proposed new reforms in the areas of immigration and education.

Among the many stories reported on by The Local this week, two in particular have generated a great deal of attention on the opinion pages of Swedish papers.

Both stories reported on government proposals in key policy areas: education and immigration—areas in which the reform-minded Alliance government has been particularly active.

As written up in The Local on Wednesday, Sweden’s Minister of Education has proposed reforms to how Swedish school children are graded. If Jan Björklund has his way, in a few years Swedish students will receive As, Bs, and Cs for their work, rather than the current MVG, VG, and G starting from grade 6.

For those unfamiliar with Sweden’s current grading system, the marks can be translated as follows:

MVG (mycket väl godkänd) = very high pass

VG (väl godkänd) = high pass

G (godkänd) = pass

IG (icke godkänd) = fail

Of the four dailies that chose to write about Björklund’s proposal in their main editorials, only one—Aftonbladet—was overtly critical of the new grading system.

In describing its support for the new system, Göteborgs-Posten (GP) emphasized the advantages of a more “nuanced” grading system noting that having more tiers allowed students to “more easily move up to a visibly higher level.”

Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) echoed those sentiments in more concrete terms.

“It can feel overwhelming for a student to improve from a G to a VG, whereas it appears within the realm of possibility to move from an E to a D,” writes SvD.

“Clear information also drives ambition,” added GP, further echoing the government’s line that the new system will provide more accurate feedback about students’ performance which in turn can help motivate them to improve.

But according to tabloid Aftonbladet, the new grading system is unlikely to be the key to success in the classroom, as the proposal’s supporters claim.

“Students who today are successful will also be successful when their success is given an A, and students with difficulties are not going to have it easier because their failures are marked by an F,” writes Aftonbladet.

The tabloid criticizes the proposal further, asserting that the changes would pull teachers out of the classroom and into meetings about the new standards, thus leaving them with less time for their students.

Aftonbladet also worries that the new scale signifies further that Alliance education policy puts too much emphasis on ranking students against one another, thus exacerbating the esteem problems of low performers.

GP acknowledges and dismisses similar concerns, seeing the fears of students getting discouraged by low marks as overblown. According to GP, “it’s important that students and parents clearly see early on whether there is a risk that students aren’t making the grade.”

Reaction was also strong to a government suggestion that immigrants achieve a measure of economic stability before seeking Swedish residency for their relatives.

As reported in The Local on Thursday, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Migration Minister Tobias Billström have proposed that immigrants must demonstrate “appropriate housing” and a “steady means of support” before their relatives would be allowed to migrate to Sweden.

The lead opinion piece in SvD praises the Alliance government for talking bold steps to update Sweden’s immigration policies from a system the paper sees as having “led to a sense of being left out, where immigrants’ dreams have been crushed with amazing precision, and at the cost of widespread public dissatisfaction.”

The job and housing demand proposal is a “big step,” according to SvD. The new demands would “increase the driving force to settle in areas where there are jobs and tolerable conditions. More will take responsibility. The relatives that do eventually move here will find better conditions in which to build a dignified life.”

In stating its support for the proposal, Expressen points out that only two EU countries currently lack similar demands of new immigrants—Belgium and Sweden. It argues that the proposal will reduce the number of immigrants coming to Sweden because of family ties, but also admits that the approach is difficult.

“Every limitation of people’s right to stay in Sweden is an extremely tough question and nothing to be happy about,” it writes. “Nevertheless, the government’s proposal appears to be an appropriate compromise and fits with EU standards from which we cannot diverge too far.”

Meanwhile, the editorial board at GP is more skeptical toward the suggestion, asserting that “the proposal has advantages, but it is far from clear that they outweigh the disadvantages.” GP asks the reader—and the civil servants who will be tasked with flushing out the proposal in detail—to put themselves in the position of being an immigrant in another country.

“We can’t place tougher burdens on foreign residents in Sweden than what we would accept for Swedes overseas,” the paper writes. “We all ought to ask ourselves how long we are prepared to live apart from our children if the world was to fall apart and we were forced to seek protection in say, Kurdistan.”

Criticism from Aftonbladet was even more pointed, with the tabloid writing that the proposal represents an “inhumane policy.” Aftonbladet argues for additional resources to help new immigrants get acclimated to Sweden, along with a renewed engagement with respect to the job market.

The government has chosen to start at the other end, writes Aftonbladet by “suggesting rules that are going to split families and in many cases worsen social exclusion.”

Where the main newspapers stand

Dagens Nyheter, “independently liberal” broadsheet, Stockholm-based, owned by the Bonnier family.

Svenska Dagbladet, “independently liberal-conservative” broadsheet,

Stockholm-based, owned by Norwegian media company Schibsted.

Göteborgs-Posten, “independently liberal” broadsheet,

Gothenburg-based, owned by the Stampen media group.

Sydsvenska Dagbladet (Sydsvenskan), “independently liberal” broadsheet, Malmö-based, owned by the Bonnier family.

Aftonbladet, “independently Social Democrat” tabloid, Stockholm-based, owned by trade union federation LO and Norwegian media company Schibsted.

Expressen, “independently liberal” tabloid, Stockholm-based, owned by the Bonnier family.

ANALYSIS

10 things the Covid-19 crisis has taught us about Sweden

Over the 14 months since the Covid-19 crisis began to affect daily life in Sweden, both the pandemic and the national response have revealed some important things about Sweden and the Swedes, writes The Local contributor Chiara Milford.

Only some people wear a mask on the tunnelbana in Stockholm
Only some people wear a mask on the tunnelbana in Stockholm. Photo: Jessica Gow / TT

1. Swedish people aren’t as good at following rules as we thought 

Sweden has primarily used non-coercive measures to curb the spread of the virus, relying on individual responsibility to socially distance. But many regions have repeatedly reported low public compliance with guidance. 

Take the tunnelbana in Stockholm during rush hour and you’ll likely be met with a carriage full of mask-less commuters, despite the recommendations to keep a distance and wear a mask at all times. 

During the pandemic, many citizens did reduce their contact with others, or went into self-isolation, but some went in the other direction and protested the relatively relaxed restrictions. 

Perhaps Swedes are more rebellious than we previously assumed. 

2. Nothing will get in the way of the right to roam 

Freedom of movement is enshrined in the Swedish constitution and a global pandemic wasn’t going to stop that. While some countries imposed lockdowns, curfews and mandatory quarantines, Sweden didn’t. 

Although people were asked to “think about whether travel is really necessary,” many still went on skiing holidays during the winter peak in infections.  

The Public Health Agency has said that if they hadn’t allowed domestic travel for the summer holidays, people would have done it anyway – but in an uncontrolled way. 

Proof that allemansrätten (the “right to roam”) applies to more than just hiking. 

3. We may never use cash again 

When was the last time you touched a 100 kronor bill? The transformation to a cashless society was already well underway before the pandemic began (Sweden launched its first cashless, unmanned shops years ago), but it has certainly sped it up. 

Now, even more supermarkets have added automated checkout options or ask customers to avoid cash if possible, while several banks have raised the threshold on contactless payments.

4. Even Swedes can fall out of love with the government… 

Criticism of the government’s treatment of the pandemic has been rife, and trust in the government has fallen dramatically. Only 34 percent of the population thought Prime Minister Stefan Löfven was handling the crisis well in June 2020.

Many people within Sweden’s scientific and medical community have written op-eds criticising the government’s strategy. At the very start of the pandemic, over 2,000 academics signed an open letter imploring the government to impose stricter restrictions.

Anti-lockdown protest in Stockholm.

Anti-lockdown demonstration in Stockholm. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/ TT

5. …but criticising authority isn’t without backlash

Freedom of expression is also protected by the constitution, but that hasn’t stopped critics of Sweden’s strategy facing fierce backlash in the public arena, leading some to say they have stopped speaking in the media on the topic or have even left the country as a result. 

Norway’s state epidemiologist Frode Forland reported abuse after he said he did not agree with the Swedish strategy entirely. Readers of The Local have reported receiving xenophobic social media abuse after criticising the government’s strategy. 

And public health officials have also reported facing threats for doing their job, showing just how polarised and toxic the debate has become.

6. Education is genuinely important

Throughout the pandemic, Sweden made keeping schools open a priority. Schools  were never stopped on a nationwide level from offering in-person classes for children under 16, despite multiple outbreaks. On the whole, schools have adapted rather than closed, though distance learning was a possibility in cases where local authorities judged it necessary. 

Thankfully, doctors at the Karolinska Institute have found a low incidence of severe Covid-19 symptoms among children.

7. Swedish society is not as equal as we thought 

Like everywhere, in Sweden the virus exacerbated existing inequalities to deadly consequence. Covid-29 took a shocking toll on the most vulnerable parts of the population.

Poorer suburban communities suffered some of the worst outbreaks. Foreign-born people were not only disproportionately affected by the virus, but have also been vaccinated at a lower rate than native Swedes, while there have also been significantly higher mortality rates among groups with lower incomes and lower levels of education. 

None of this is unique to Sweden, but as a country frequently thought of as one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, it feels starker to see inequalities laid so bare. 

A couple hug and laugh as they have lunch in a restaurant in Stockholm,  just as the pandemic begins in April 2020.
A couple hug and laugh as they have lunch in a restaurant in Stockholm, just as the pandemic begins in April 2020. Photo: Andres Kudacki / AP Photo

8. Swedes need social contact more than we thought

While Swedish workers have taken to working from home quite well, rates of loneliness among unemployed people have skyrocketed during the pandemic. 

Despite bustling bars and cafes, many Swedes did stay home and older people reported feeling increasingly isolated. 

Although early on in the crisis, it was a common joke that social distancing wouldn’t be a problem for Sweden’s reserved population, the restrictions on socialising have taken a toll on mental health.

9. Lagom doesn’t work in a crisis 

Rather than clear rules, there has been confusing messaging around mask-wearing, gatherings, and the exact distance you need to keep, placing the burden of making risk assessments on individuals (is it 1.5 metres, two, or an arm’s length? Or is it an arm’s length?). 

Sweden’s recommendations have stood out while the rest of Europe has mostly responded to the pandemic with decrees, laws, and precise guidelines. Balance and lagom is great in many situations, but less so during a global pandemic. 

10. International media likes to oversimplify what’s happening here 

This past year has seen articles from big publications around the world either lauding the so-called “Swedish strategy” or calling it a disaster, often based largely on which narrative suits their domestic agenda. Pundits on all sides of the political spectrum have jumped on Sweden as a case-study for good or bad.  

This phenomenon is not new; aspects of Swedish culture have been misrepresented overseas for years, whether it’s Swedish immigration policy used as a horror story by right-wing politicians, local news stories overblown to present an inaccurate picture, or popular culture perpetuating stereotypes.

As usual, the reality is much more complicated than black or white. It will likely be several years before we can know the full impact of the pandemic here and elsewhere.

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