Wandering through the falling snow in front of the renowned law faculty at Sweden's Lund University, Ukrainian maritime law student Anton Kulchytskyy has nothing but praise for Swedish higher education.
“Sweden has always been world famous for its free and high quality education,” he explains.
Kulchytskyy, who left his government post as a legal advisor to come to Sweden, says he was drawn by Sweden's reputation for quality, but also because it was free.
But starting in the autumn of 2011, international students from all but a couple dozen European countries will face application fees as well as a hefty tuition bill for the privilege of pursuing a degree in Sweden.
The introduction of the fees, announced in February of this year, amount to something of a shake up for Swedish universities, which have had a long tradition of supplying free education to both Swedish nationals as well as those from other countries around the world.
As of December 1st, the first day that international students can submit applications for admission for the autumn 2011 term, students from outside the European Union and the European Economic Area (EU/EEA) must pay a 900 kronor ($125) fee in order to file their application.
But that cost is just a drop in the bucket compared to tuition fees that can top 200,000 kronor per year for non-European students who choose to study in Sweden.
Exact tuition fees vary depending on the university and the nature of the programme. For example, a masters programme in European business law at Lund University will cost non-EU/EEA students 130,000 kronor per year, while an architecture masters programme at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm will set non-European students back 245,000 kronor a year.
Combined with estimated living costs of 8,000 to 10,000 kronor a month, the tuition fees suddenly make higher education in Sweden a rather costly endeavour, with a two-year programme possibly costing in excess of 700,000 kronor.
“We believe that the number of applications will decrease dramatically, definitely in the first years, when the tuition fees are introduced,” warns Beatrice Hoga, the president of Sweden's National Union of Students (Sveriges Förenade Studentkårer – SFS).
Hoga also fears that the tuition fees will negatively affect the quality of international students from outside the EU/EEA, as the pool of applicants will be limited by financial means.
She is also sceptical about government claims that the tuition fees will help Swedish universities compete more effectively for international students.
“Sweden is a small country where English is not the mother tongue, and we believe that the fact that students can study without fees has been a great factor in the recruitment of international students,” she says.
Nevertheless, the government maintains that introducing fees for students from outside the EU/EEA will increase the Swedish universities' world competitiveness, while at the same time reducing the burden on Swedish tax payers.
“Sweden spends over 500 million kronor every year on education for foreign students. By introducing fees we can redistribute a part of that money and instead spend it on increased quality in the education system,” explains Anna Neuman, a political adviser to education minister Jan Björklund.
Currently, around 10,000 non-EU/EEA students enroll in Swedish universities every year, most of them in the technical, medical and engineering fields.
“We believe that Sweden should compete on the global market for education by offering higher education with excellent quality – not by being free of charge,” Neuman says.
But Neuman's claims that tuition fees will boost the competitiveness of Swedish universities ring hollow for Allan Malm, dean of the School of Economics and Management at Lund University.
“Fees will be disruptive. Students paying fees want things that we don't deliver to Swedish students and there is no way that we can give something to paying students and not to the others,” he says.
In addition to his concern about a spike in complaints from tuition-paying students who may feel they aren't getting their money's worth from Swedish universities, Malm also worries about the impact of the anticipated drop in international student enrollment.
“The number of international students will drop considerably,” he explains.
He added that, even though international students aren't currently paying tuition, the boost they give to enrrollment figures are vital for ensuring that a number of technical programmes receive adequate funding which is tied to enrollment.
“A lot of the [technical] colleges rely on the international students who don't pay fees and now they won't get students at all. These colleges are heavily dependent on the money from international students,” says Malm
Maureen Hoppers, a project manager with the Swedish Institute, a body charged with promoting a positive image of the country abroad, denies claims that the quality of Swedish universities was low compared to other countries.
However, she admits that enrollment at some of Sweden's technical schools will likely suffer in the wake of the fees.
“International students usually study engineering, medical or other technical studies. I think the English speaking technical courses will lose the most students and they will need to work harder to keep the same level of recruitment,” she says.
The creation of scholarship programmes is one measure the government hopes will protect against a precipitous drop in enrollment by non-EU/EEA students.
To start with, 30 million kronor will be allocated for students from the 12 countries designated by the Swedish government as qualifying for special programmes to promote their development. The countries include Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
From this fund, the government plans to create 80 to 100 scholarships, mainly for masters-level students. Scholarships will not only cover the tuition, but they will also provide students 8,000 kronor per month to spend on living expenses. Additionally, 10,000 kronor will be given as a lump sum to defray travel expenses.
Hoppers said that the scholarships would be given out based solely on merit, but that no country among the 12 countries selected for development would be allowed to claim more than 25 percent of the available scholarships.
The government has also set aside another 30 million kronor for the 2011-12 academic year to provide scholarships for other non-European students from the rest of the world to be allocated by universities by various means.
Starting in 2012, the funding pool will be boosted to 60 million kronor annually, says Carina Hellgren from the International Programme Office for Education and Training (Internationella programkontoret), a branch of the education ministry tasked with administering international exchange and scholarship programmes.
While tuition fees and accompanying government funded scholarships may ease the burden that international students place on Swedish taxpayers, and may even boost the quality of non-European applicants, international students may never view Sweden in the same light as a result of the shift away from free higher education.
“I understand why they are introducing the fees, but it's really sad,” says David Damian Lares, a Mexican student studying entrepreneurship at Lund University.
“If I didn't enroll this year to study in Sweden, I would never have come at all.”