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In Sweden, the push is on to recruit foreign graduate students

International students help Sweden broaden the relatively narrow scope of its academic research as well as bringing in revenue.


The leafy campus of Sweden’s Lund University, with its ivy-covered buildings, Doric columns of polished granite and gilded chandeliers, harks back to another era. But like many Swedish – and, in fact, European – universities, Lund is undertaking a very modern experiment.

In an effort to attract international students, Lund and other universities across Europe are offering a rapidly growing number of master’s programs taught in English. A report by the Institute of International Education, a non-profit agency, found that the number of European master’s programs taught entirely or partially in English totaled 6,407 as of June 2013, up 38 percent from the end of 2011 and up from about 500 in 2002. The most popular offerings were business and economics programs, followed by those in engineering and technology.

The Netherlands and Germany led the pack, with 946 and 733 programs respectively in 2013. But Sweden had one of the fastest growing rates: it offered 708 master’s programs in English as of June, an increase of more than 70 percent in just 18 months and up almost fourfold since 2007. Italy, Finland and France also had rapid growth rates, but the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Germany – all early adopters of English-taught master’s programs – continued to lead the trend.

“Scandinavian countries have switched almost all their postgraduate teaching to English,” the report said. With so many programs launched in a short period of time, “it is difficult to know how many of them will be sustainable,” it added.

The trend presents new competition for other countries trying to recruit international students, especially those that have been traditional destinations for studying in English. The IIE study, which was based on data obtained from a website listing European educational programs, showed that U.K. programs had received fewer page views, while those for programs in continental Europe were on the rise. For Canada the bigger competitive threat remains the U.S., already the top host country for international students, said Alex Usher, president of the Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates.

Sweden’s strong push into English-language education was prompted by the introduction of tuition fees two years ago for non-European students. Before 2011, higher education was free for all students, no matter where they came from. (It remains free for Swedish and European students; doctoral programs remain free for domestic and foreign students alike.) But as the number of international students rose quickly in Sweden, so did resistance about taxpayers having to foot the bill. The number of applications from foreign students plummeted to about 5,000 in 2011, the year tuition fees were introduced, from 14,000 in 2010. The number rebounded somewhat to about 6,500 in 2012, according to the Swedish Higher Education Authority (PDF).

The tuition fee change was “a difficult transition,” said Niklas Tranaeus, marketing manager of the Swedish Institute, a government agency. To help smooth the way, Sweden introduced scholarships for non-European international students and beefed up its marketing efforts, targeting students from China, India, Brazil and the U.S., he said. The federal government also revised immigration rules, making it easier for international students to stay and work after completing their studies.

Institutions also stepped up their recruitment efforts and are relying on English-taught graduate programs to help turn the situation around. Anita Hansbo, president of Jönköping University, said the university rolled out its global master’s programs in anticipation of the tuition fee change. Jönköping, a mid-size school in southern Sweden and one of the country’s few private institutions, offers 15 master’s programs in English and expects to introduce several more next year. It helped that its international business school already operated largely in English. Dr. Hansbo acknowledged that the programs provide a welcome source of additional revenue for the university. But, she added, internationalization also helps broaden the relatively narrow scope of Sweden’s academic research and helps prepare Swedish students to work in the country’s export-dependent industries. “We can gain quality by being international,” she said.

Master’s programs in English

Founded in the mid 17th century and now one of Sweden’s major, research-intensive universities, Lund has among the largest number of foreign students on its campus. It offers half of its 200 master’s programs in English, as well as five bachelor programs. At Lund and across Sweden, the programs are structured to comply with the requirements of the Bologna process, which seeks to harmonize European education systems and calls for three-year undergraduate degrees and two-year master’s degrees.

A Canadian ex-pat, Sarit Grinberg Rabinowicz, recently completed a degree in international and comparative education at Stockholm University, one of the country’s largest postsecondary institutions with 2,300 international students and 77 global master’s programs. Universities set their own tuition fees and those at Stockholm range from $13,800 US to $21,000 a year.

Ms. Grinberg Rabinowicz liked the program’s small classes, the strong emphasis on group work, and the international mix of students. Swedish students have far more say over the curriculum and how they are taught than their Canadian counterparts, she discovered. There’s also much less emphasis on grades, she said. Students are encouraged to set their own goals and are marked according to how well they achieve them, rather than compared to other students in the class. “It’s all about improvement,” said Ms. Grinberg Rabinowicz. On the other hand, she said, orientation programs for new students fell short of those she was accustomed to in Canada and made it difficult to meet new people at the start.

Aaron Shafer, a newly minted PhD from the University of Alberta, is now a postdoctoral fellow at Uppsala University in Sweden. He was back in Canada to accept his award for the 2013 CAGS/Proquest Distinguished Dissertation Award for the best doctoral thesis in engineering, medical science and natural science. “Sweden is a great place to do science,” he said after the presentation. “In Canada, being a graduate student is a lifestyle. In Sweden, it’s a job. You stop on weekends.”

For fellow Canadian Michael Vogt, studying in Sweden was an opportunity to discover his ancestral roots. The 26-year-old is enrolled in his second year of a master’s of public health at Umeå University in northern Sweden. As a European Union passport holder, due to his mother’s Swedish ancestry, he qualified to study for free. He prefers the block system of teaching that many Swedish universities use, in which students take one or two courses at a time. “It’s easier to focus,” he said. Also, under the Swedish system students have several opportunities to write final exams, a practice that “helps take some of the pressure off,” he added.

With its modern architecture and maple trees at the peak of their autumn colours, Umeå closely resembles its 1960s-era Canadian counterparts. The weather too is familiar. With an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Regina, Mr. Vogt was used to long, cold winters. Still, Sweden’s short winter days took more getting used to. Umeå helps students and staff cope by providing an all-white “Aurora” room lit with UV lamps.

Swedish companies work closely with institutions on projects and engage their help in solving problems. That’s one factor that attracted Canadian Shelagh McLellan to Umeå’s Institute of Design. Now a second-year student in the master’s of interaction design, Ms. McLellan spent part of her first year helping redesign the city’s police dispatch centre and is currently working with the students in transportation design on a project for Bang & Olufsen, the Danish manufacturer of electronics and home-entertainment products. “Here you get industry contacts,” she said.
Also in a bid to attract more foreign students, the Stockholm-based Karolinska Institute plans to launch soon a MOOC on global health through edX and a second one, on medical statistics, is in the works. The institute, which selects the winners of the Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology, is undergoing rapid expansion. In the lobby of its new building, a hologram of a human heart greets visitors. The building’s exterior glass walls resemble the prow of a giant ship. Nearby, construction cranes are at work on a new hospital and a new research lab, among Europe’s largest, is expected to open in 2018.

International students will play a key role in Karolinska’s growth and transformation. It aims to have all its classes comprised equally of Swedish students, European students and other international students, said Jan-Olov Höög, dean of higher education.

When it comes to attracting Canadian students, the renowned medical university recently got a boost from hockey heavyweight Mats Sundin, who donated two million Swedish crowns ($362,000 Canadian) to Karolinska and the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine to help fund a research exchange between postdoctoral fellows at the two institutions.

Rosanna Tamburri recently visited Swedish universities as part of a group of journalists who were guests of the Swedish government.

Rosanna Tamburri
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  1. NA / November 20, 2013 at 14:46

    Very interesting article, I learned a lot of new information, especially about the European higher education system/environment – thanks for this!

  2. PT / November 20, 2013 at 15:20

    As someone who just complete a doctoral degree from a Swedish university and taught at several courses in Sweden, and is currently teaching in Canada, the differences cannot be more obvious. There are advantages and disadvantages for the block system Sweden employed in course arrangement; students are more likely to be concentrated when there are only two courses running at the same time. However, learning on a particular subject does take time, and the length of the course we run here does allow students to have multiple opportunity to practice, which is difficult to achieve when a course only run for 7 weeks.

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