Foreign students help boost numbers at Swedish colleges

The number of students enrolled at Swedish universities climbed in 2008 for the first time since the early 2000s, new statistics from the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskolverket) show.

Foreign students account for a large part of the increase.

A total of 87,000 new students started courses at a Swedish university for the 2007/2008 academic year – 5,800 more than the previous year and the first significant rise since 2002, according to the study compiled for the agency by Statistics Sweden (SCB).

“Students from abroad” – defined as exchange students and ‘free movers’ organizing their own studies – have steadily increased in number since the late 1990s and in 2007/2008 accounted for 25 percent of the total.

In 2007/2008, 21,800 students from abroad enrolled for courses at Swedish universities, up from 7,200 in 1998/1999.

Lena Eriksson at the National Agency for Higher Education told The Local on Monday that several factors are likely behind the increase.

“There has indeed been an increase in students from abroad, perhaps as a result of the Bologna process, but also the downturn in the labour market is a factor. Experience tells us that more people study when there are fewer jobs,” she said.

“Furthermore there are large numbers of 19-year-olds in Sweden at the moment and many of these are now starting to study.”

The figures also indicate the increasing popularity of distance-learning courses with over 101,400 students pursuing the courses.

This represents more than 25 percent of the total number of 384,000 new and existing students at Swedish universities in 2007/2008, up from 10 percent in 1997/1998.

A new structure for education and examinations was introduced in Sweden on July 1st 2007. The move is a step towards adapting higher education to Bologna – a process with the intention of increasing cooperation among European seat of higher learning and integrate higher education among European countries.

In a separate press release on Monday the agency published statistics showing that the number of “students with foreign backgrounds”, as distinct from “students from abroad”, are also on the increase at Swedish universities, but their representation varies greatly across the country.

This category is defined as students born overseas or having two parents born overseas (excluding adoptions). In contrast to the “students from abroad”, which are excluded, this category has a degree of longer term residency in Sweden.

Karolinska University in Solna has the highest proportion of students with a foreign background – with 38 percent of its total student body, followed by Södertörn University with 37 percent and the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) with 29 percent.

With regard to students from abroad, KTH had the highest number in 2007/2008, followed by Lund University and Uppsala University.

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What’s it like coming to Sweden as an international student during a pandemic?

The international student experience is enriched by the chance to travel abroad and meet new people, but what happens when a pandemic makes those two things difficult or dangerous? Students who had arrived in Sweden for the autumn semester shared their thoughts with The Local.

What's it like coming to Sweden as an international student during a pandemic?
Some students missed the start of term because journeys to Sweden were so complicated. Photo: Veronica Johansson / SvD / TT

Around 3,000 fewer exchange students are studying in Sweden this year, while other international students (who had planned to move to Sweden for a full degree rather than just an exchange semester or year) faced logistical challenges.

Raghav, an Indian Masters student at Uppsala University, is starting his second year. Although he was able to renew his student permit, there were no direct flights available from India, which remains on Sweden's entry ban (holders of a student permit are exempt).

As a result, he was one of many forced to take multiple connecting flights, delaying the journey to Sweden and meaning he missed the orientation week.

He will be studying almost entirely online, and said: “The whole 'international student experience' experience will be less. Online learning leads to sharp drop in socialising and thus networking is really non-existent. [That leads to] low internship opportunities.”

The library at Uppsala University. Photo: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/

Yue Jie, who is starting a Masters at Lund University, also faced difficulties travelling from his home country of Singapore.

“I was denied from transit through another EU country to Sweden. So I had to cancel that flight and take another flight that goes directly to Copenhagen without a transit,” he said.

He was pleased with the support offered by the university, particularly a housing guarantee which means he doesn't have to worry about finding a place to live, although he thought that the Arrival Days should have been extended to accommodate international students whose journeys were delayed.

“In my country, the use of face masks is compulsory everywhere you go, as long as it is outdoors. In Sweden, none of the locals seem to wear a mask. So it is interesting here.”

Ignacio, a student from Panama, said he had had to cancel his plans altogether.

“Because programmes have been changed [to be] online, we cannot apply for a resident permit. Embassies and consulates are not open to interview anyone aplying for permits, we feel [as if things are up] in the air even for 2021 semesters.”

As The Local has previously reported, some students have been left in limbo after Swedish embassies abroad closed, leaving them unable to get their residence permits.

In Iran, around 60 students have had their permit interviews postponed until January, but even then, several students who spoke to The Local said they're worried they won't go ahead, or would get their permits too late to attend the spring term – meaning they'd have to drop out of their course and lose their paid tuition fees.

When The Local asked the Foreign Ministry if they could offer any guarantees that the students would get their permits by a certain time, a press spokesperson said: “These bookings are preliminary and the Embassy continues to monitor the Covid-19 situation in Iran on a daily basis.” 

Raha and Maryam, two first year Masters students at Uppsala University, told The Local they had chosen to start their classes online rather than have their tuition fees refunded. 

But this leaves them facing a lot of uncertainty.

“I have paid my tuition fee in May and I have to pay my spring semester tuition fee before January, but I don't know if the immigration office will grant my resident permit. I have to register my daughter in school, which started from August 15th in Sweden,” said Maryam, who like many others felt that an alternative solution should have been found, such as an email or phone interview, or submission of further evidence.

One concern shared by many students was the slow internet speed in Iran hampering online learning. Programmes such as Zoom may not be accessible.

“The website of Chalmers university is unreachable because of the sanctions and I have to use bypass apps to get there. Preparing the course materials is another problem as we can not go to library or buy them,” said Nika, who emphasised that they had put a lot of time and money into his dream of studying at Chalmers University in Gothenburg. 

“I am forced to accept a big risk to register not knowing whether I will have the permit [in January] or not. I feel like no one cares.”

Thanks to all the students who responded to our survey; even if we could not include all the responses in this article, we read them all and will use them to inform future reporting. If you have questions or a story to share about studying or living in Sweden, get in touch with us at any time by emailing [email protected] and we will do our best to respond.