Sweden attracts fewer foreign students after introduction of fees and visa curbs

Visa restrictions and imposition of tuition fees for first time mean fewer people from overseas are applying to study at Swedish universities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 8:54pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 4:10am


Sweden prides itself on being a country that welcomes immigrants. Foreigners like Chinese engineering student Zhao Shuqi may be excused if they think otherwise.

During her years at Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology, she has experienced a change in policy: the introduction of fees for students from nations outside the EU.

Zhao began her studies at the institute, known as KTH, before fees were introduced in 2011, but since then she has paid a total of 290,000 krona (HK$349,100) with the help of her parents and part-time jobs.

That is about 10 years of income for the average urban resident in China and, what is more, once she has her diploma, she is likely to be asked to leave the country, unless she does something about it.

"I must find a job before I graduate, or else I cannot stay," she said.

Since introducing fees Swedish universities have struggled to attract foreign students, and critics now warn its visa system pushes qualified graduates out of the country.

Until 2011, Sweden was one of the few countries in the world to offer free university places to all foreign students, attracting nearly 8,000 in the final year of the scheme.

When fees were introduced for non-EU nationals, enrolments dropped by 80 per cent to 1,600, with the greatest decline among African and Asian students.

Sweden still offers scholarships to qualified post-graduate students from non-EU countries, but not enough to fill the empty seats left in lecture halls, like at KTH, which is one of Scandinavia's most prestigious centres of higher learning. KTH receives 5,000 applications per year for foreign bursaries but can only offer 60 funded places.

KTH's president, Peter Gudmundson, said that foreign graduates had contributed to Sweden's industrial development and were seen as ambassadors for the country.

"It's quite common that they take jobs in Swedish companies outside Sweden," he said.

Taking up jobs in Sweden is harder, unless students are recruited before graduation.

In a recent op-ed article in the daily Dagens Nyheter, Gudmundson argued for a review of the fees decision and better visa arrangements.

His counterpart at Gothenburg University, Pam Fredman, co-authored the article and said that Sweden made it too hard for students who had lived in the country for several years to get visas, and that Sweden needed better links between education and industry.

Carl Bennet, the head of an investment fund, is one of several business leaders who has spoken out about the problem.

"We must create a basis for them to stay and work in Sweden," he said.

When foreign students finish their studies they face a race against the clock to find work and get employment visas before their student visas expire, 10 days after graduation.

Some 76 per cent of students say they want to stay in the country and work after graduation but a mere 17 per cent do, according to a report from Boston Consulting Group.

Apart from the cost of funding foreign students' studies, the decision to impose fees was necessary, said Tobias Krantz, the minister for higher education at the time and now head of education at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise.

The reason: large numbers of non-paying students distorted the education market.

"Swedish higher education must compete in the global market," he said, adding that overseas students should look to Sweden because they want to benefit from "a high level of education, not because the university entrance is free of charge".