Why Swedes are so relaxed about taking gap years

For thousands of Swedish students, high school ended two weeks ago. But instead of rushing their way into university, many of them are planning to take a year off, writes contributor Marie Zafimehy.

Why Swedes are so relaxed about taking gap years
Anna Tybrandt and her friends in Malaysia/Photo: Private

As an exchange student coming to Uppsala on my Erasmus year, I was quite surprised when I noticed almost all freshmen were (way) older than me. I was about to graduate from my bachelor degree at 20, when Swedes of my age were only starting university. Later I learned they had taken a gap year between high school and their first year of university. This is still uncommon in France and is frowned upon as a sign of future failure.

In France “you have to think seriously about your future”

“My teachers told me that my plans were nice but that I had to think seriously about my future,” says Adèle Fensby, a French-Swedish political science student in Uppsala.

She and her sister went to high school in Grenoble, France. “Teachers weren’t supportive at all and wanted me to go to a preparatory class,” she explains. “I only applied to an economics programme at university so they would leave me alone.”

Fearing the same reaction, her twin-sister did not even tell their high school she was taking a gap year. But in August 2014, after their baccalauréat, they flew to Sweden to study English at Gothenburg University.

A year later, the two sisters took different paths: Adèle Fensby decided she wanted to keep studying in Sweden and applied to the political science programme in Uppsala, while her sister went back to France to study law in Paris.

Fensby twin sisters during their gap year in Gothenburg/Photo: Private

Fensby twin sisters during their gap year in Gothenburg/Photo: Private

“My sister had a hard time registering to university when she got back in France,” says Fensby. Indeed many French universities only accept students who have just graduated from high school or who have spent at least a year in university before. A gap year can turn out to be more of a burden than an asset.

By contrast, Adèle Fensby, who decided to study in Sweden, “got a bonus from this year”. Indeed a gap year adds “merit points” for Swedes who apply to university. This system encourages young Swedes to go abroad and make the most of the opportunity to recharge the batteries.

Swedes’ enthusiasm for gap years

Maja Sellergren just graduated last June. She now plans to work a few months before going to Costa Rica with two of her high school friends. Everyone around her backed her decision. “My parents think I can do what I want and my teachers and friends think it’s good because you have the chance to try new things and travel,” she says.

While teachers and family in Sweden are generally very supportive, some parents have mixed-feelings about their child taking an extensive gap year.

“My parents were hoping I would only do half a year and they started to get critical when I told them I was considering taking another gap year after the first”, admits Eric Rydén.

After spending a gap year travelling around Asia and America, he got accepted to Uppsala University’s law programme. But Rydén completely understands his parents’ view.

“They never did it themselves so I don't blame them for not completely understanding the total freedom a gap year gives you”.

Anna Tybrandt’s parents gave their full support during her… three gap years. She mainly worked in her home-town Gothenburg to earn money and travelled around Europe and East Asia. Taking so many gap years was fine with her parents, as long as they were relevant and not a waste of time.

“I doubt that they would've been supportive in the same way if I had spent three years at home playing video games,” jokes Tybrandt.

Maja Sellergren during her high school graduation/Photo: Private

Maja Sellergren during her high school graduation/Photo: Private

“A great opportunity”

Few students seem to regret their gap years.

“This year gave us time to discover a lot of things, it opened our minds, we met lots of new people and international students,”says French-Swedish student Adèle Fensby. 

In 2012 just 31 percent of high school graduates opted not to take a gap year after high school.

“Since I still live with my parents I do not spend a lot, so it is the perfect time to work and earn money to travel”, says Sellergren who just graduated and has started working for Lindingö municipality in Stockholm. 

Erik Rydén in China during his gap year/Photo: Private

Erik Rydén in China during his gap year/Photo: Private

Some students even change their minds after starting university.

“I had a few friends who started studying and then quit and took a gap year instead,” says Erik Rydén. And he doesn't blame them. “Taking a gap year is by far the best decision of my life. I don't know who or where I would be if I hadn't taken time to consider my university studies and do something other than studying for a while”, he says.

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Inquiry calls for free after-school care for 6-9 year-olds in Sweden

Children between ages 6-9 years should be allowed admittance to after-school recreation centers free of charge, according to a report submitted to Sweden’s Minister of Education Lotta Edholm (L).

Inquiry calls for free after-school care for 6-9 year-olds in Sweden

“If this reform is implemented, after-school recreation centers will be accessible to the children who may have the greatest need for the activities,” said Kerstin Andersson, who was appointed to lead a government inquiry into expanding access to after-school recreation by the former Social Democrat government. 

More than half a million primary- and middle-school-aged children spend a large part of their school days and holidays in after-school centres.

But the right to after-school care is not freely available to all children. In most municipalities, it is conditional on the parent’s occupational status of working or studying. Thus, attendance varies and is significantly lower in areas where unemployment is high and family finances weak.

In this context, the previous government formally began to inquire into expanding rights to leisure. The report was recently handed over to Sweden’s education minister, Lotta Edholm, on Monday.

Andersson proposed that after-school activities should be made available free of charge to all children between the ages of six and nine in the same way that preschool has been for children between the ages of three and five. This would mean that children whose parents are unemployed, on parental leave or long-term sick leave will no longer be excluded. 

“The biggest benefit is that after-school recreation centres will be made available to all children,” Andersson said. “Today, participation is highest in areas with very good conditions, while it is lower in sparsely populated areas and in areas with socio-economic challenges.” 

Enforcing this proposal could cause a need for about 10,200 more places in after-school centre, would cost the state just over half a billion kronor a year, and would require more adults to work in after-school centres. 

Andersson recommends recruiting staff more broadly, and not insisting that so many staff are specialised after-school activities teachers, or fritidspedagod

“The Education Act states that qualified teachers are responsible for teaching, but that other staff may participate,” Andersson said. “This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that other staff may be used, but preferably not’. We propose that recognition be given to so-called ‘other staff’, and that they should be given a clear role in the work.”

She suggested that people who have studied in the “children’s teaching and recreational programmes” at gymnasium level,  people who have studied recreational training, and social educators might be used. 

“People trained to work with children can contribute with many different skills. Right now, it might be an uncertain work situation for many who work for a few months while the employer is looking for qualified teachers”, Andersson said.