On Monday, Minister of Education Lars Leijonborg caused shockwaves in Sweden’s higher education community when he announced plans to start charging a tuition fee to non-European university students.
Specifically the proposal would require students from outside the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA) – which includes the EU member states, Iceland, Norway, and Lichtenstein – to pay tuition fees to attend Swedish universities and colleges.
The suggestion of introducing tuition fees for foreign university students won’t be formally put forward until November, but it has already stirred a great deal of debate on the pages of Sweden’s major newspapers.
The Sydsvenskan newspaper begins with a bit of history on the proposal, reminding readers that former Social Democratic education minister Thomas Östros first tried to convince his party colleagues of the logic behind charging fees to foreign students in 2004.
When the commission looking into the proposal completed its findings in 2006, about 4,000 “free movers” – students who had come to Sweden outside the purview of any organized exchange program –would have been affected by the planned fees.
Sydsvenskan adds that the number of free movers has since doubled, and that Swedish universities are facing a flood of 25,000 foreign student applications for the autumn semester.
It cites a recent report in the Upsala Nya Tidningen newspaper about Uppsala University, which finds itself in a situation where many of its English language masters programs are populated with Chinese students possessing low qualifications – and no Swedes whatsoever.
Sydsvenskan argues it is high time that something be done, and that the proposal due to be put forward in November is “a sensible way to go”.
“Under one condition – and it is ideologically important: education must also in the future be tuition-free for students from Sweden and other EEA countries.”
In voicing its support for the proposal, Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) is succinct.
“Lars Leijonborg is right,” it proclaims.
“Sweden ought to be paid by university students who come from countries outside the EU/EEA.”
The paper is favourable toward the idea of having foreign students come to Sweden to study, but not if it means that Swedish taxpayers need to foot the entire bill.
Moreover, SvD believes that charging tuition fees will improve the quality of the education that foreign students receive in Sweden.
And the paper doesn’t buy the argument put forward by Sweden’s student unions that the government’s proposal conflicts with the principle that education is a right.
“According to what logic is a free education in Sweden a right for American or Asian students?” asks the paper.
According to Aftonbladet, however, “the principle that students shouldn’t need to pay fees to study at universities and colleges is a well-established in Sweden.”
The paper is concerned that tuition fees will further harden class divisions in society and restrict people’s ability to move up the social ladder.
“Tuition solidifies a class society; [it] threatens the radical idea of using education as a tool for increasing social mobility. As a way to increase peoples range of choices,” it argues.
“The entire education system is build upon this idea. It should be possible to study further.”
Aftonbladet believes there is a risk that study fees will constitute a roadblock to many who wish to pursue higher education.
“Young people who today already hesitate when facing the burden of taking on large student loans would find yet another economic burden hanging around their neck,” writes the paper.
While Aftonbladet sees the proposal as “understandable”, it is also echoes the argument of Sweden’s student union groups who fear that it may lead to the introduction of fees for all students.
Universities and colleges are “a possibility for people to realize their full potential” it argues.
“Tuition fees threaten this idea.”
Dagens Nyheter (DN), on the other hand, doubts the argument made by Sweden’s student unions, calling it “a little exaggerated”.
“The principle that higher education should be cost-free is so ingrained in Sweden (and a number of other European countries) that it’s easy to make an exception,” it writes.
Moreover, DN thinks it would be useful to engage in a discussion about whether student fees should be introduced in Sweden, although the paper stops short of supporting the idea explicitly.
It argues further that introducing fees will actually help Swedish institutions of higher learning attract more international students.
“In today’s system, students from other countries also compete with domestic students for resources. With fees, it will be possible for Swedish colleges and universities to carry out special programmes for foreign students without affecting their overall operations,” writes DN.
Of greater concern to DN, however, is the ability of Sweden’s system of higher education to manage the additional student fee income correctly.
The paper points out that Sweden’s institutions of higher learning have a hard time resisting pressures to cater to demands from the state and the market.
“Fees could lead to an increase in quality and more critical thinking, but also to the opposite: further tailoring to the specialized and short-sighted needs of the labour market,” it writes.
“Colleges’ most important relationship is neither to politicians or companies, but to the students.”
Writing in Expressen, Sakine Madon has a hard time understanding why the proposal to have foreign students pay fees to attend Swedish universities is considered “controversial”.
“I think rather that it sounds self-evident. Just like nearly everywhere else in the world students should, with good reason, pay for their education on the other side of the world,” she writes.
She also discredits the arguments made by Sweden’s student unions as a kneejerk reaction to “everything that isn’t free”.
Specifically, Madon takes issue with insisting free education is a “right”, arguing that using such claims betray an underlying belief that everything can be free of charge.
“This is of course not the case, which the Social Democrats’ Östros confessed early on when he a few years ago proposed the idea of charging tuition to foreign students,” she writes.
More appalling to Madon is the student unions’ argument that charging foreign students a fee would cost Sweden’s taxpayers money and lost competence.
“Excuse me? Tax payers aren’t going to complain that foreign students pay for their own education,” she writes.
And in Madon’s estimation, Sweden is already losing a great deal of the potential competence that comes with having foreign students studying in Sweden.
“Instead of embracing those students who choose to work here after finishing their studies, we say no thank you, go home, and apply for a work permit.”
In Madon’s eyes, Sweden’s biggest problem is the mixed message it sends foreigners by offering free higher education, but then not following up by facilitating entrance into the Swedish labour market.
Rather than simply doling out grants and scholarships to foreign students who lack resources, Madon proposes that a better approach would be to pay for portions of a foreign student’s education if he or she opts to work in Sweden for a time following after graduation.
“Students get education and work, we get an educated workforce. And most of all we stop competing by being ‘free’,” she concludes.
Where the main newspapers stand:
Dagens Nyheter, “independently liberal”, Stockholm-based, owned by the Bonnier family.
Svenska Dagbladet, “independently liberal-conservative”,Stockholm-based, owned by Norwegian media company Schibsted.
Göteborgs-Posten, “independently liberal”, Gothenburg-based, owned by the Stampen media group.
Sydsvenska Dagbladet (Sydsvenskan), “independently liberal”, Malmö-based, owned by the Bonnier family.
Aftonbladet, “independently Social Democrat”, Stockholm-based, owned by trade union federation LO and Norwegian media company Schibsted.
Expressen, “independently liberal”, Stockholm-based, owned by the Bonnier family.