Great changes are afoot for foreign students at Sweden's universities after the country abandoned its position as an educational free-for-all haven for students with shallow pockets from all corners of the globe.
Previously free for all applicants, Swedish universities have now introduced tuition fees for foreign students, except for exchange students and those from within the EU and Switzerland.
Tuition fees for international students will range between 90,000-250,000 kronor ($14,000-39,000) per year, depending on the programme and school.
The introduction of the fees has caused applications from non-European students to plummet and given rise to concerns that some universities may be forced to cut certain programmes.
“With fewer students in the system, in the long term, we may be forced to reduce the number of programmes and courses that we offer,” Eva Malmström Jonsson, vice president of Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), tells The Local.
As part of the introduction of the fees, the government also announced it would offer scholarships to ensure that talented students from developing countries wouldn't have to forgo the opportunity to study in Sweden due to high tuition costs.
Several experts remain unconvinced, however, about the merits of the new set up.
“This isn’t entirely good,” Torbjörn Lindqvist, analyst at the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskoleverket), tells the The Local of the new model.
While the Swedish government projects that retracting free higher education for non-EU students will save the state roughly 500 million kronor every year, it has only set aside 90 million kronor per year for scholarships to help foreign students who lack the financial resources pay the new fees.
“By no longer offering everyone - including those who are able to pay - free education, we will now be able to give special attention to students from countries with which we have development cooperation and to particularly gifted students,” said former higher education minister Tobias Krantz in a statement announcing the introduction of the fees.
A third of this money, to be awarded by the Swedish Institute, will go to students from twelve countries in Africa, South America and Asia which which Sweden has long-term aid cooperation to cover both tuition fees and living costs, providing roughly 90 full scholarships per year.
The remaining 60 million kronor, however, will go directly to the universities, where the funds will be distributed according to student body size and used as the universities themselves see fit.
As a result, it remains unclear how many international students may end up receiving scholarships, as some schools may provide full scholarships, while others plan on offering partial scholarships.
Linköping University in central Sweden, for example, is providing 100 half-scholarships, meaning students must be able to fund half of the studies on their own, while KTH will have roughly 80 full scholarships instead, funded partly with state money and partly with private funding.
“We’ve chosen to only award full scholarships,” Malmström Jonsson explains, adding that students will still need to fund living costs on their own.
Despite government claims that the scholarships would provide a helping hand to international students unable to pay tuition fees by other means, ensuring that these students are prioritised in the admissions process has also proven difficult in practice.
“It’s hard enough to chart a Swede, and even more difficult if applicants come from a country without any transparency or public data,” Linköping University’s information director Lars Holberg said in a recent interview with Sveriges Radio (SR).
KTH’s Malmström Jonsson shares Holberg's assessment, saying it “would be very difficult to assess” whether or not applicants' economic situations had been taken into account in decisions about scholarship awards.
“What we can assess, reasonably, is students’ study results,” she adds.
Instead, Malmström Jonsson suggests students who cannot afford tuition fees to the development scholarships from the Swedish Institute.
However, since students are only eligible to apply for these scholarships if they come from one of 12 developing countries with which Sweden has development aid cooperation, people unlucky enough to be a poor students from rich countries will be hard pressed to find any scholarship money coming their way from the Swedish state.
“Scholarships are awarded based solely on academic excellence, so only the best students will be given scholarships,” explains Malmström Jonsson.
Meanwhile, the introduction of tuition fees has caused foreign student numbers to plummet in Sweden.
While over 16,000 non-EU students were enrolled at Swedish universities during the last academic year, fewer than 1,300 are registered for the 2011 autumn term.
“This was hardly entirely unexpected,” said the National Agency for Higher Education’s Lindqvist, comparing with similar developments in other countries, such as Denmark, that recently introduced tuition fees for certain groups.
Sweden’s formerly free education has been an important selling point for attracting prospective students.
“Naturally if you’re trying to choose, one education programme which is pretty good and also happens to be free might be more appealing than another programme which is also pretty good, but costs money,” says Lindqvist.
However, he emphasises, studying for free hasn’t been the only selling point for universities in Sweden.
“Nobody wants something substandard, even if it’s free,” he explains.
Declining international student numbers are a cause for worry at universities, however, prompting some universities to consider cutting their course offerings.
“It’s going to streamline our education programmes,” says Malmström Jonsson of the effects of declining numbers of foreign students.
Lindqvist agrees that a diminished course offering is a real risk for Swedish universities, adding that advanced courses and master’s programmes are in particular danger.
“International students very often enroll in master’s programmes, so we’ll have to see how many of these we can continue to offer,” he says.
Lindqvist hopes that the high quality of Swedish tertiary education will nevertheless continue to attract foreign students, despite the new tuition fees.
“Many Swedish universities have good reputations, not because they’re free, but because the education they provide is good. So we’ll have to work towards continued quality in our education,” he explains.
However, whatever reputation Swedish universities may have for quality hasn't been enough to counteract declining numbers of foreign students, forcing the country's institutions of higher learning to work in a number of ways to stay attractive internationally.
Stockholm University, for instance, has invested millions into a programme called Academic Initiative, with the sole aim of furthering internationalization at the school.
Meanwhile, KTH is planning to cooperate with a number of Swedish companies to help give foreign students a leg up on the Swedish labour market.
“We’re trying to create attractive packages, so that companies will want to provide money towards attracting foreign students who can then join the company through summer jobs or internships,” explains Malmström Jonsson.
Such cooperation remains in the planning stage, however, thus making it is impossible to gauge how effective such measures may be be.
So while the Swedish state can count the savings reaped from ditching free education to all university students, it remains unclear how much Sweden may stand to lose in the long term in terms of declining foreign student enrollment and diminished course offerings.