Ask any student from Lund or Uppsala about their days at university, and the chances are good that they will mention the word ”nation” in the first two sentences. The concept of these student societies is perhaps as deeply ingrained at the country’s oldest two universities, as any of the courses, with a history stretching back to the 17th Century.
As the name suggests, each nation is named after the provinces from which they traditionally recruited their members. Those in Lund take their names from provinces and areas around southern Sweden, while in Uppsala, they come from all over the country.
At Uppsala, the largest nation is Norrland, with some 6700 members, while the smallest is Gotland, comprising around 600, most of whom are from the islands of Gotland and Åland.
Although this system of dividing students according to origin can be traced back to the nations at the medieval University of Paris amongst others, it is generally accepted that in the case of Uppsala, the inspiration came from the ”Landsmannschaften” at several German universities during the 1600s.
Still closely following those early traditions, the nations play a key role in the everyday life of the students. The nation is the hub of all kinds of social activities, such as bars, clubs, theatre companies, orchestras, sports societies, as well as formal occasions.
Although there are differences, it is a system that would be broadly recognisable to students in North America.
”The closest would be fraternities and sororities (also known as “Greek Life”), which was fairly popular at my university (University of British Columbia in Vancouver), but generally not as common in Canada as they are in the United States,” Says 25-year-old Kate Lottridge from Canada, who is studying for a Master of Science degree in the ‘International Marketing and Brand Management’ programme at Lund.
”The difference is that joining frats and sororities can be costly and time consuming, and can also involve an initiation process, which has the reputation of being unpleasant, ” she continues.
Sweden’s universities do not have such initiation rites, and membership, which used to be compulsory is now voluntary. For those who do choose to join, the fee varies between 50 kronor and 350 kronor, for which members receive a card entitling them to a wide range of benefits and discounts, updated information on activities on and off campus and the chance to take part in social activities.
The nation tradition is strongest at Lund and Uppsala, but these days some other universities, such as Umeå University and Linneaus University (in Växjö and Kalmar) have also established nations.
For foreign students, who can choose whichever nation they feel suits them best, the nation represents an ideal way to sample Swedish traditions, as well as make contacts, meet new people and learn more about the Swedish language and culture.
”It is a good way to make new friends and participate in social events on campus and, more specifically, for international students, it’s a good way to experience Swedish cultural activities, such as crayfish parties, formal dinners or even a ball,” says Teeghan Durity-Wingson, a former 25-year old student at Lund, who was a member of the Malmö Nation.
”It is also a good way for international students to interact and meet Swedes and perhaps even practice your Swedish,” he adds.
Kate Lottridge agrees. ”The environment is friendly, casual, and welcoming. On a popular nation night you can show up and expect to know a large number of people there, so it’s a good way to spend time with friends without even planning to see them.”
More than just a social hub though, the nations also provide welfare advice and accommodation information, as well as job opportunities such as bar tending at social events, or joining one of the many organising committees.
In terms of administration, each nation is managed by curators who are responsible for planning activities and keeping the finances in order. At every nation, there are also two international secretaries, who help out with any problems specific to students from abroad, and provide information about the activities at the nation.
This extra support along with the social benefits, is especially appreciated by the international students.
”I am a member of Lund’s nation, the largest at the university. For me, the good thing about the nation is that you can make friends, especially with Swedish students. There is always a friendly atmosphere, so it’s really good to relax with a cup of coffee in the nation after lectures. As I have no otehr university exepreicne form home I cannot say if there is something simailr in China though,” says 18-year-old Zhao Siqi from Beijing, studying a Bachelor of Science in Development Studies at Lund.
This inclusiveness explains the enduring appeal of the nations. It is perhaps ironic that so many of Sweden’s most progressive thinkers and politicians have their background in a system that essentially hasn’t changed much at all over several centuries.
Maybe the university nations prove that sometimes the old ideas still are the best ones after all.
Article sponsored by Study in Sweden.