Should Swedish students have to pay tuition fees to study in Sweden?
A draft bill issued by the Swedish Ministry of Education has given Swedish institutions and students a gruesome headache this summer. Here are the reasons why.
Education in Sweden is supposed to be free for all Swedish and European students – it is a fundamental principle, established by the Law on Higher Education. Thus, many institutions and unions were taken by surprise in June, when the Ministry of Education issued a draft bill, leaving many people puzzled.
All of a sudden, there was a loophole in which Swedish students could be tuition-fee liable – even if they were to study in Sweden.
Problem resides in other countries’ fees
It all began in June 2013. The Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ), the state supervisory authority for institutions of higher education, criticized the universities in Uppsala and Luleå for having charged tuition fees to a couple of their students.
Uppsala and Luleå found themselves in a dilemma. The matter did not concern regular Swedish educational programs. Those programs are funded by the state. Instead, the matter concerned the Erasmus Mundus program. On regular Erasmus exchange studies, students attend partner universities to study abroad for 3 to 12 months, and these studies are funded by the EU.
Programs such as Erasmus Mundus are different from the regular programs. Instead of the studies simply being a brief segment, these programs are completely allocated on a series of universities around both Europe and the world. As a student, you are on one single educational program, yet, moving between places such as Vienna, Madrid, and Lund. In order for this to operate smoothly, the collaborating institutions have formed a consortium, which is responsible for setting harmonized fees.
And here lies the fundamental problem: All countries do not provide their students with free education – in fact, countries free from tuition fees are rather an exception. At the same time, there are fundamental EU regulations saying that European students are to be treated equally. Swedish institutions cannot admit students on a free-education basis to educational programs where certain institutions charge tuition fees – all students within the framework of one educational program, are to pay a fixed amount.
Thus, in a situation like this, somebody would have to pay for the Swedish students – or, participation on the program will not materialize.
However, international education partnerships are important to Sweden. Therefore, the Association of Swedish Higher Education (SUHF), submitted a letter to the Ministry of Education, requesting a solution to these problems.
University requested to pay
For six months, the Ministry worked on composing a reply, and when it arrived, it was received with agitated emotions.
As a solution to the problem, the Ministry had notified the institutions that they are encouraged to be included in partnerships, in which students are tuition-fee liable. Institutions were raging, unions were going insane, and thousands of protesting users were gathering on Facebook groups.
Lund University accepts the Ministry-issued suggestion, but Vice-Chancellor, Per Eriksson, takes a critical stance.
“This is not a new problem, it has existed for a couple of years. What is really disturbing is the fact that the anticipatedsolution comes in the eleventh hour. Now we more or less have to accept it,” he says, and continues:
“This solution is not exactly flawless.Then, on the other hand, we have a responsibility to not opt out of any international partnerships.The flaw resides in the fact that students now will have to fund their education with an annual amount of 8,000–9,000 euros.” Per Eriksson would rather have the University accounting for the education costs.
“I believe the University should be included in funding these fees, either entirely or partially, using the same funds we would have spent on our own students in Sweden. The Ministry should have considered similar solutions as well,” he says.
However, he especially sees a problem in the principle of free education in Sweden being abolished.
“I witnessed the fees for third-country students being introduced, and I have been listening to the government spouting about how fees would never fall upon Swedish students. It is difficult to break free from the situation at hand,” says Per Eriksson.
Urgent solution needed
SUHF also accepts the solution. However, just contrary to Per Eriksson, they believe that the principle of free education has not been compromised.
“Students are paying for a certain educational program included in an international program, but they are not paying for the program segments taking place in Sweden,”says Linda Gerén, SUHF investigator.
The fee-related issue does not only concern the Erasmus programs, but it also puts several other exchange arrangements at risk.
Since many new education agreements soon are to be signed, it was necessary to have a quick solution to the fee-related issue.
“Several programs will expire now, and many institutions want to join new partnerships.
That is something they probably wouldn’t have dared, unless it did not concern countries without tuition fees,” says Linda Gerén.
Repelling Swedish tuition fees
With such an urgent issue at hand, a regulation of the Law on Higher Education was the only reasonable option, according to the Ministry.
“Naturally, we had the option of disregarding the principle of free education, but then we would not be able to participatein this type of program. That is why we need to come to this kind of solution,” says Peter Honeth.
He is a Secretary of State and Swedish Education Minister, Jan Björklund’s, right hand in matters concerning higher education. Peter Honeth does not like the fact that other countries charge the students tuition fees. However, for Swedish institutions to fund Swedish students’ education in those countries, as suggested by Per Eriksson, he does not consider an option.
“It is not reasonable. Lund and many other institutions have stated that more resources are needed for education in Sweden, and on that matter alone we have our hands full. We do not have any reason to step in and compensate for the decisions made by other countries for their fee-related systems. Swedish students will have to be prepared to pay certain fees in certain other countries,” says Peter Honeth.
But the fact that several people consider the principle of free education being discontinued makes Peter Honeth alarmed.
“The debate, as I see it, is one where the general message is ‘whoa, this is the first step towards introducing tuition fees for all’, is something I strongly disagree with. Free education in Sweden and the Swedish institutions not being funded by tuition fees, is a sacred principle.”
Denmark might have the solution
But there is no shortage of suggestions for other solutions as well. One of the most interesting ones comes from UKÄ, the ones that reallycaused this wheel to spin in the first place. Their reply to the Ministry contains a draft amendment. UKÄ keeps one eye on Denmark and a model built on scholarships. In Denmark, they have education free from tuition fees at higher levels, but according to a comprehensive, political agreement, there are certain scholarships for studies abroad, which enabled the Danish students to participate in international education partnerships. The institutions are only allowed to be included in international education partnerships as long as the maximum amount of the scholarship is not exceeded. The scholarships cover the entire tuition fee, meaning students have their entire educational program funded.
But whether such scholarships could be a reality in Sweden, remains to be seen. Until then, the problem is indeed organizational, but the very students are the ones having to pick up the bill.
Text: Kenneth Carlsson
Photo: Jens Hunt
Graphics: Filip Rydén