Swedish Universities: The exception that proves the rule?


Every year the league table of the best universities in the world is published. Unsurprisingly, the USA and the UK dominate. However, they face close competition from Swedish public institutions. At a time of rampant privatisation across all sectors, Sweden has tried to maintain what has made it one of the world’s most egalitarian countries – strong public funding, of which education is an essential pillar.

 Six universities in the top 200!

This year, 6 of the 12 Swedish universities figure among the top 200 universities in the world, as compiled by the Times Higher Education (THE) and QS University Ranking. With their impressive campuses, these institutions have an air of British and American academia about them, and do not seem too different from prestigious international universities aside from one notable aspect – Swedish students, as well as their European peers, pay no tuition fees.

Significant public funding for universities

On its official site, the University of Lund marked the start of the new semester by making it into the 100 top universities of the world, followed by the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in 98th place and the University of Uppsala in 112th place. Unlike the UK and the USA, the countries which accompany Sweden in the upper echelons of the global rankings in tuition and research, Swedish universities receive almost 90% of their funding from the government. This trend is also seen in other Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Denmark. According to the National Institute for Higher Education (Universitetkänslerämbetet), the total sum allocated to higher education in 2016 rose to almost 70 million Krona (7 million Euros); around 6.5% of Sweden’s GDP. The country also ranks second in the EU in terms of investments in research and development, well above the European average of 4.9%. Sweden is looking to become a global leader in the field.

Establishments with a great deal of autonomy

The higher education system in Sweden is also distinguished by the level of autonomy it affords its universities in decision-making processes. While they benefit significantly from public financial support, they also enjoy a great deal of independence in terms of the degree programmes they choose to offer. “The universities and higher colleges are independent authorities; they decide which tuition programmes they want to offer and how these will be organised,” the National Institute for Higher Education explains.

The rankings should be put into perspective

However, Hanna Maria, a student at the University of Stockholm, puts this prestige into perspective “in typically Swedish fashion”. “Of course, you can’t compare [Swedish universities] with Harvard or Oxford. It’s hard to say what makes a university prestigious […]. If I had to explain the reasons for the reputation of Swedish universities, I’d say that it’s due to the relatively high standards of education, particularly in the country’s best universities.”

She adds that the universities cannot rest on their laurels after placing well in the global rankings. On the contrary, the institutions must maintain their standards to attract new students and potential doctorates.

Another problem which affects not only Swedish universities but also all of society is the management of the housing crisis. If a lot of people want to come to Sweden, difficulties in finding accommodation could be a reason not to study here,” explains Hanna Maria. The report on the situation established by the Swedish housing syndicate (Hyresgästföreningen) in 2017 also underlines that the current situation of the housing market has had a long term effect on “the potential and talent of young adults”.

Banner photo: illustration picture. Credit: Alma Cohen

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