Sweden boosts university places as pandemic spurs rush to reskill

As after the 2008 financial crisis, Swedes have responded to the coronavirus-induced downturn by making plans to return to university

May 24, 2020
Changing of the guard, Stockholm
Source: iStock

Sweden has created thousands of new university places in a bid to retrain people forced out of work by the coronavirus pandemic.

Survey evidence suggests that many students in the UK will defer entry in the autumn because of restrictions on physical teaching and other activities, meaning UK universities will potentially face a huge financial hit − but Swedish universities have been inundated by a record number of applicants, as the country uses the downturn to reskill.

The government is funding 9,300 new places this year in response to the pandemic, including 6,000 summer course places. Next year, an extra 6,600 places will also be made available.

“You invest during the down period,” said Marita Hilliges, secretary general of the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions. “People understand that you need to invest in yourself if you lose your job.”

The extra places are also targeted at furloughed employees who now have more time on their hands.

“They can of course go home and do some work on their veranda, but some people prefer to be more employable in the future,” she said. 

Extra places on offer this summer will be a “real mixture”, she said – geography, maths and extra teacher training modules are all planned.

Other measures to ease people back into education include loosening restrictions on study length and permitted earnings while studying.

Sweden responded similarly after the financial crisis of 2008, adding thousands of extra university places to respond to the downturn, explained Professor Hilliges. Now, facing a pandemic, “the Swedish government was really, really fast”, announcing the measures at the end of March, she said.

Although Sweden has introduced less stringent lockdown measures than other countries, it is still expected to take a serious economic hit from the crisis.

A record number of people have applied to start university courses in the autumn, the Swedish Council for Higher Education announced in mid-April. Applications are up 13 per cent compared with last year, with particular interest in nursing, medicine and biomedical science courses.

“It is expected, and positive, that more people choose higher education studies when the economy is in decline,” said Karin Röding, the council’s director general, in a statement at the time.

This wave of new applicants was likely made up not just of the newly jobless but also people who had long considered retraining but who now felt a downturn was the right time to go back to university, said Professor Hilliges.

In Sweden, “we have a big open system that you can come back to”, she said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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