Foreign applications to Swedish unis collapse

Applications from foreign students to Swedish universities have plummeted following the introduction of tuition fees, according to application statistics for the autumn term released on Tuesday.

Foreign applications to Swedish unis collapse

Monday marked the last day that foreign students could apply to study at Swedish higher education institutions for the autumn 2011 term, the first for which non-EEA and non-Swiss students will be required to pay tuition fees.

According to the Swedish Agency for Higher Education Services (Verket för högskoleservice, VHS), which coordinates the admissions process for colleges and universities, the number of applicants for master’s programmes fell sharply by 73 percent compared with 2010.

Separately, the number of people who applied for international courses dropped by 86 percent compared with last year.

“It is more or less what we had expected. We had expected a large drop because of the tuition fees in the autumn,” Tuula Kuosmanen, VHS’ director for admissions operation, told The Local on Tuesday.

The number of applicants for master’s programmes in the 2011 autumn semester was 25,094 compared with 91,788 candidates for the fall of 2010.

The total number of applicants for international courses, which will be offered at some of the country’s universities and colleges starting in the autumn, was 5,772. The number of applicants to the international courses in the autumn of 2010 was 40,429.

“Right now, our statistics show that we have about 23,000 candidates who will pay the fees and about 6,000 who are classified as exempted. We will only know the number of those who complete their applications by paying the registration fee by the last payment date on January 28th,” added Kuosmanen.

When the admissions round for autumn 2011 admission to international courses and master’s programmes at Swedish colleges and universities opened on December 1st, 2010, it marked the first time that students from outside the EU, EEA and Switzerland would be charged tuition fees.

Kuosmanen noted that it took Denmark about three to four years to before international student application numbers recovered to previous levels after it introduced tuition fees in 2006.

She also noted that Danish universities and colleges now have more students from other EU countries than before.

She cited the Netherlands as undergoing a similar experience and said that whether Sweden experiences a similar rebound depends on how the universities will roll out scholarship programmes in the future and what strategies, countries, and areas they decide to focus on.

“In general, we see a decrease in the number of international applicants, as was expected, given that this will be the first year that Sweden charges fees,” said Kuosmanen.

She added that she was unsure how the drop in applicants would affect staffing levels at Swedish universities and colleges, especially for teachers of Swedish as a second language courses.

The countries with the greatest number of applicants for master’s programmes in 2011 were Ethiopia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Germany, China, India, the UK, Nigeria and the US.

For international courses, the countries with the largest number of applicants were Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Iran, Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya and the UK.

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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.