Looking at mobility and the Social Dimension in Sweden following the Modernisation Agenda

By Erik Pedersen (SFS)

The Swedish National Union of Students (SFS) is a national organisation with 47 member unions that all together represents about 290.000 out of 320.000 students in higher education in Sweden. SFS was established in 1921 and has ever since worked to improve the quality of education, students’ conditions and student representation both locally and nationally.

Since the introduction of Europe 2020 there have been annual follow-up reports published on the national progress according to national targets. Because the latest follow-up focused on how to overcome the financial crisis and reduce the high unemployment rates existing, the national recommendations paid attention to policy areas such as fiscal policy, household debts and how young people can be included in the labour market. The Council recommended in 2012, that Sweden would:

- Keep its fiscal policy on a path that ensures that the medium-term objective continues to be met;
- Take preventive action to deal with the macroeconomic risks associated with rising house prices and household indebtedness. A broad set of measures could be considered, such as reviews of the mortgage system, including the capital requirements of banks, rent regulation, property taxation and construction permits, and;
- Monitor and improve the labour market participation of young people and other vulnerable groups.

These are of course valid and necessary steps to reduce the impact of the financial crisis in Sweden. But we see, both in Sweden and in the rest of the European Union, a lack of knowledge of how important higher education is as a way to stop, and come out of, the crisis. We need policy and decision makers to fully understand the benefits of a well-functioning higher education system. Across the EU, huge austerity measures have affected higher education both in the number of students and quality of higher education. Those austerity measures are of course in direct conflict with the importance of higher education and well educated individuals. Wide-ranging austerity measures in higher education give a long term effect on the education level of individuals and the society at large with, amongst others, reduced competitiveness in the future. Due to the globalisation, the EU and its member states have to compete with an increased number of states and with a highly educated workforce. That is also one of the most important ways to come out of the financial crisis and reduce the risk for the EU to end up in another crisis situation in the future. That is why a high level of public financing of higher education must continue and in some cases be reinforced. All nations in the EU must change their policies and start to regard higher education as a valid way out of the financial crisis.

Although Sweden has not yet made the same cutbacks in higher education, SFS still sees several problems in relation to the higher education policy in Sweden. The inclusion of higher education in the national reform programme is inadequate. Higher education must be allowed a more central role for Sweden to meet the targets set in the Europe 2020 strategy. SFS missed the connection between education and research in the latest research bill that was presented in October 2012. This link cannot be missing for the best development of higher education. Education and research are tightly linked together and cannot be handled separately. A holistic view of higher education and research must therefore be introduced.

One of the key issues for the EU Member States in higher education stipulates that by 2020, 40 per cent of young people should successfully complete higher education or equivalent studies. Sweden has a national target that 40-45% of 30-34-year-olds should have completed third level education. The national data for Sweden for 2011 indicates that 47,5 per cent of 30-34-year-olds have attained higher education. At the beginning of December 2012 the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (HSV) released a report, showing that Sweden has the lowest graduation rate of all the Nordic countries. In 2006, the graduation rate in Sweden reached 41 per cent but in 2011 it had turned and was noted at only 37%. The graduation rate in Iceland was 60 per cent, in Denmark and Finland 50 per cent and in Norway the graduation rate was 42 per cent. This indicates that the other Nordic countries will have a larger proportion of individuals that have graduated than Sweden. It can of course have severe effects on Sweden’s future competitiveness. It is also ominous to see a reduced graduation rate in Sweden although one target in the Modernisation Agenda is to increase the number of higher education graduates. The government has to take the appropriate measures that could increase the graduation rate in affect, but also so that the higher education system meets the demand from society, businesses and individuals. It becomes more and more important with regards to opportunities for lifelong learning and therefore it is impossible to dimension the higher education on upcoming youths alone.

At a time when higher education plays an important role for the society, it also gets more and more important for states and higher education institutions to work on widening access to higher education. For the higher education institutions to supply individuals to critical thinking and be better equipped to meet future obstacles the student population must reflect society at large. We can see that the number of youths that goes through to higher education is more common in families where the parents also have undergone higher education. It is important to work on widening access to broaden the perspectives and to get individuals that most likely would not go to higher education. This will enrich the society in the future. Higher education institutions today in Sweden do not have resources to work with widened access. This has led to a decline in projects that have the purpose to widen access to higher education. The projects that exist today are in place thanks to individual initiatives from institutions or municipalities in conjunction. This in connection to a reduced dimension of higher education and higher costs for students leads to a less heterogeneous student population. We stress the importance for the government to get in place incentives for institutions to work on widening access at both the institutional level to increase the diversity of Swedish students and the national level when it comes to incoming and outgoing students.

For the first time in a couple of years, the number of Swedish students going abroad has increased to 27.700 students in 2011/2012. But the number of foreign student coming to Sweden has decreased – much because of tuition fees for students outside EU/EEA. Although the number of Swedish students going abroad has increased, it is important to also increase the number of foreign students that come to Sweden for their studies. Internationalisation is vital for higher education but it also needs students to choose Sweden for their studies. A high level of internationalisation and foreign students that participate in Swedish higher education also results in improved quality of education. Foreign students studying in Sweden are a valuable asset to the Swedish society and higher education in Sweden. They force us to challenge our own thinking and way of life. This will lead to an improved quality of the higher education. It will also give an international perspective in education and create important links to Sweden that will have a long term positive impact on the Swedish economy and our international relationships.

During the fall of 2012, we have seen that the Erasmus programme has struggled due to the financing situation. The Erasmus grant is a prerequisite for some students to even think about studies in another country. Some sort of a grant system must be in place in the future to ensure the possibility for students from lower socio-economic background to go abroad. At the same time SFS, must stress that the European Loan Guarantee for Master Students will induce a negative development for widening access to higher education. We are well aware that individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to take a loan but at the same time they are the ones that are in most need of financial support to study abroad and in some cases even to enter higher education at all. For the EU to imply the importance of widening access but at the same time advocate the loan scheme contradict one another. Both the EU and the member states must take a clear stand to work towards a higher degree of widened access, which also gets more important with regards to the current financial crisis where specific groups with different socio-economic backgrounds can get affected.

For example, there is today a huge lack of student housing that causes problems for both Swedish students but of course also foreign students that comes to Sweden. Many students are referred to friends and other students in order to find some place to live during their studies. Therefore the number of student housing has to increase to meet the demand. The Swedish grant and loan system for Swedish students is also a problem. SFS publishes a yearly report that in 2012 showed that students in general lose 740 SEK (about 8 euros) per month due to a lower amount of grants and loans than their real costs per month.

In the upcoming national reform programme for Sweden, SFS would like to see a higher priority given to higher education and students’ conditions to enter and participate in higher education. SFS would like to stress several areas of concern regarding Sweden’s national targets and commitments to EU2020, but also the EU and other member states. EU and member states must realise what role higher education has in moving out of the financial crisis. Higher education must be dimensioned to meet the demands of several different interests that get more important as the EU competes with a highly educated workforce. The Swedish government has to work towards getting incentives in place for institutions to work on widening access to higher education so that the student population reflects the society at large. This also means that the national policy in Sweden has to change. In the end, this all comes back to widening access and the importance to work with conditions for students so that the student population is composed of students from different socio-economic backgrounds.