Foreign applications to Swedish unis collapse

Applications from foreign students to Swedish universities have plummeted following the introduction of tuition fees, according to application statistics for the autumn term released on Tuesday.

Foreign applications to Swedish unis collapse

Monday marked the last day that foreign students could apply to study at Swedish higher education institutions for the autumn 2011 term, the first for which non-EEA and non-Swiss students will be required to pay tuition fees.

According to the Swedish Agency for Higher Education Services (Verket för högskoleservice, VHS), which coordinates the admissions process for colleges and universities, the number of applicants for master’s programmes fell sharply by 73 percent compared with 2010.

Separately, the number of people who applied for international courses dropped by 86 percent compared with last year.

“It is more or less what we had expected. We had expected a large drop because of the tuition fees in the autumn,” Tuula Kuosmanen, VHS’ director for admissions operation, told The Local on Tuesday.

The number of applicants for master’s programmes in the 2011 autumn semester was 25,094 compared with 91,788 candidates for the fall of 2010.

The total number of applicants for international courses, which will be offered at some of the country’s universities and colleges starting in the autumn, was 5,772. The number of applicants to the international courses in the autumn of 2010 was 40,429.

“Right now, our statistics show that we have about 23,000 candidates who will pay the fees and about 6,000 who are classified as exempted. We will only know the number of those who complete their applications by paying the registration fee by the last payment date on January 28th,” added Kuosmanen.

When the admissions round for autumn 2011 admission to international courses and master’s programmes at Swedish colleges and universities opened on December 1st, 2010, it marked the first time that students from outside the EU, EEA and Switzerland would be charged tuition fees.

Kuosmanen noted that it took Denmark about three to four years to before international student application numbers recovered to previous levels after it introduced tuition fees in 2006.

She also noted that Danish universities and colleges now have more students from other EU countries than before.

She cited the Netherlands as undergoing a similar experience and said that whether Sweden experiences a similar rebound depends on how the universities will roll out scholarship programmes in the future and what strategies, countries, and areas they decide to focus on.

“In general, we see a decrease in the number of international applicants, as was expected, given that this will be the first year that Sweden charges fees,” said Kuosmanen.

She added that she was unsure how the drop in applicants would affect staffing levels at Swedish universities and colleges, especially for teachers of Swedish as a second language courses.

The countries with the greatest number of applicants for master’s programmes in 2011 were Ethiopia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Germany, China, India, the UK, Nigeria and the US.

For international courses, the countries with the largest number of applicants were Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Iran, Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya and the UK.

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ANALYSIS: Why are Denmark’s politicians criticising university researchers?

The Danish parliament has recently adopted a controversial text asking universities to ensure that "politics is not disguised as science". The Local's contributor Sophie Standen examines why Denmark's politicians are criticising university researchers.

ANALYSIS: Why are Denmark's politicians criticising university researchers?
Populist politicians have singled out courses at Copenhagen Business School (CBS) for following a so-called 'woke' agenda. Photo: Bjarke MacCarthy/CBS

What has happened? 

On the 1st of June, a majority in the Danish parliament adopted a written declaration that aimed to combat ‘excessive activism in certain humanities and social science research environments’.

The initial debate was led by Morten Messerschmidt from the Danish People’s Party (DF) and Henrik Dahl from Liberal Alliance (LA). The declaration was then voted through, with all of the major parties in favour, including the governing Social Democratic party.

What does the controversial declaration say? 

The declaration stated that the Danish parliament expects that university managements will ensure the self-regulation of scientific research, so that ‘politics is not disguised as science’.

However, it also asserted that Danish parliament has no right to determine the method or topic of research in Danish universities, and stressed the importance of free and critical debate in the research community.

Who is upset by it? 

The adoption of this position by Danish parliament has proven extremely controversial for many academics and researchers, with over 3,200 Danish and international researchers signing an open letter denouncing the stance adopted by the Danish government.

The authors of the letter stated that ‘academic freedom is under increasing attack’, and described the developments as ‘highly troubling’.

Furthermore, in another open letter to the Minister for Higher Education and Science, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, published in the Politiken newspaper, 262 Danish university researchers complained that they were facing increasing occurrences of personal intimidation and harassment due their research.

What is concerning university researchers and professors? 

Professor Lisa Ann Richey, a professor at Copenhagen Business School, told The Local that the parliament’s move was “illiberal” as “it doesn’t support freedom”. 

Richey, who has been a professor in Denmark for more than 20 years, was one of co-organisers of the open letter, and a co-signatory of the letter published in Politiken.

“I am one of the international recruits who finds the Danish research environment a great place to work,” she said. “We have a strong university system and good research environments. One of the things we are risking here is that reputation, and also the possibility of recruiting internationally.”

She said that in her opinion, academia in Denmark was self-policing due to the exhaustive peer-review process and oversight by university authorities. 

“There are lots of checks and balances within academia, and sometimes it doesn’t seem like that because they [the politicians] have no idea how many evaluations we go through,” she said. “We have peer reviews, student reviews, and university assessments to ensure quality in research.” 

Is there a populist campaign behind the statement? 

Richey complained that long before the parliamentary statement, prominent populist politicians “came out on social media calling out particular courses”. 

“They did this to a course I taught in, saying now even CBS has become part of this ‘woke agenda’,” she complained. “This statement about politics dressed up as science, it’s meant to intimidate. We need university leadership to support us and we need everyone to recognise that this is a threat towards academic freedom and also to make sure that we don’t expose individuals”

Anders Bjarklev, the rector of the Danish Technical University (DTU), and president of the rector’s college for Danish universities, echoed this sentiment. Writing on social media, he has called the position adopted by parliament, ‘an attack on research freedom’. 

“When subjects are singled out by politicians, such as gender studies or post-colonial studies, then academics get worried because much of our funding is from the government,” he told The Local. 

“I am also worried that academics will be scared to take part or publish research in these subjects”.  As rector of DTU, he says he is “not sure what we could do differently”, as academics at the university “always want to ensure the highest quality standard of research”.

What has the government said to defend itself? 

In an interview with the Politiken newspaper, Bjørn Brandenborg, the Social Democrat’s spokesperson for higher education and science, insisted that despite the statement, there was “no general distrust of universities” on the part of the government. 

“The Danish parliament has a right, like all other citizens, to have an opinion on research results”, he continued, while stressing that “the Danish parliament will not become involved in decisions over what is researched in Danish universities”.

In his view, he said, the text voted on by the parliament was “completely unproblematic”, as  “all it says is that universities should take responsibility for the quality of their research”.

This adopted stance by the Danish government has shaken the arms-length principle of trust between Danish research institutions and the Danish government. Many have denounced the politicians who have singled out specific researchers on social media as examples of political activism within research in Denmark.

In a statement to Politiken, the minister responsible for Higher Education and Science in Denmark, Ane Halsboe-Jørgenson, remarked that the 3,241 researchers that had signed the open letter had “reached the wrong conclusion” about the adopted declaration.

She insisted that the Danish government is “fighting for research freedom”, while also remarking that she thinks “we politicians must stay far away from judging individuals and individual research areas”.

What will happen next? 

For Professor Lisa Ann Richey, “now, when major political parties are part of this, making a ‘non-problem’ a problem, then it’s really time that we [academics] have to respond.”

“Our work is important and it is not acceptable behaviour to try and bully individual researchers and to police research environments,” she continued. “This is something that will be moving forward now that universities have spoken out officially”.