For many foreign students, coming to Sweden entails some adjustments.
"I'm not used to this little daylight. December has been very dark," says Eric McGivney, a US citizen and master's student at the Royal Institute of Technology (Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan, KTH) in Stockholm.
He and Brooks Patrick, another KTH student from the US, note that students in Sweden take longer breaks while studying, that library hours are shorter and guest lecturers more common than in their home country.
But student life in Sweden now has something significant in common with that of the US: tuition fees. As of the autumn semester 2011, students from outside the EEA and Switzerland are obliged to pay for higher education in Sweden.
According to the government, the fees were introduced as a means of quality assurance.
If universities began to charge students for their education, the education ministry reasoned in 2010, Sweden could compete for the most talented students, as opposed to appealing mostly to those who want free education.
One of the arguments against the introduction of tuition fees was that the diversity of Sweden's student population would suffer—in essence, that only students from the rich world would be able to afford to study in Sweden.
Sadiq Malik, a Pakistani student who enrolled at Stockholm University one year before the fees were introduced, says he would not have been able to afford paying the current tuition fees.
"My programme would cost me a total of 280,000 kronor ($40,500) and that's aside from my living expenses," he says. "Pakistan is a poor country, and the situation is getting worse day by day. I might earn that much money after a lifetime of working, but only then."
Sweden is undergoing a change in student demographics.
The number of admitted master's-level students from Pakistan and India—until now the two most common countries of origin—declined by 91 and 85 percent respectively between 2010 and 2011.
The average decrease for low-income countries was over 90 percent.
Richer countries outside the EEA have felt less of an impact.
China now has the most admitted students of all non-European countries. The number of admitted master's students from the United States declined by just over 40 percent—by comparison, a small decrease.
Eric McGivney and Brooks Patrick believe Sweden will remain an attractive study destination for US students.
"Having a Swedish degree is a good way to market yourself in the US," says Brooks Patrick.
"Social values are protected here. The Nordic countries, not just Sweden, are admired around the world for their quality of life."
"I feel like Sweden has a good reputation in the US. It's an innovative, environmentally friendly country," says Eric McGivney.
From a US perspective, an annual fee of 140,000 kronor, the amount Eric McGivney and Brooks Patrick are paying for their science education at KTH, is more likely to be seen as reasonable than extortionate.
"These tuition fees are average for a technical degree and school, says Brooks Patrick.
"People ask me why I'm paying to study. I tell them that I live on Södermalm with a rent subsidized by the university, and I have a part-time job."
The willingness to pay fees is contingent on students feeling that they're getting what they pay for. Many Swedish universities make special offers to fee-paying students, such as lower rent and a chance of part-time work.
But for most, the real worth of higher education is proven after graduation.
Foreign graduates, whose numbers have risen sharply in Sweden during the past decade, have often struggled to find gainful employment after finishing their studies.
According to Sveriges Radio, about one percent of Sweden's international graduates in 2009 stayed in the country to work after graduating.
Out of those who do stay, not everyone is able to find employment commensurate with their qualifications.
"A lot of people I know from Pakistan and other non-European countries have completed one or even two master's degrees, and are still working at fast-food restaurants," says Sadiq Malik at Stockholm University.
"What, then, is the use of that degree? If most of the non-EEA graduates at the master's level disappear after completing their degrees, what's the use of attracting them in the first place? Swedish companies don't seem to be making use of the resources that are at their disposal."
Robin Moberg, project manager at the trade union Jusek points out that the losses extend beyond the graduates themselves.
"Nobody stands to gain when a country fails to utilize the human resources at
its disposal. It is important that universities put students in touch with universities through, for instance, internships and on-campus career centres," says Robin Moberg.
Politicians in Sweden have begun to address the issue.
In March 2011, a parliamentary committee proposed that recent graduates be allowed to stay in Sweden for six months after completing their studies, to apply for jobs.
At present, students may stay in Sweden only one week after graduation. The new legislation is currently being drafted.
As soon-to-be graduates from outside the EEA, Eric McGivney and Brooks Patrick are optimistic about their prospects on the Swedish job market.
"I don't speak Swedish, but I speak English really well. Hopefully companies will hire us—at least international ones," says Brooks Patrick.
Since 2008, an adjustment of Sweden's labour laws has made it easier for companies to attract foreign workers.
A recent report by the OECD concluded that Sweden has one of the "most liberal labour migration regimes" in the world—but the new laws still give preference to job applicants from the EU.
"I don't think it'll be too hard to get a job once we graduate," says Eric McGivney, exuding optimism he will want to uphold come graduation.
As fee-funded education is introduced in Sweden, many actors—universities, students and businesses, as well as the government itself—want higher education to pay off.
Sven Hultberg Carlsson