Swedish universities are at a crossroads. Starting in September, all students from outside the European Union will pay tuition fees.
While tuition will remain free for home and EU students, others will be charged fees that will vary by institution, but may average around SKr125,000 (£11,950) a year.
The shift, which is part of a broader programme of cuts to public spending, has left universities fearing for the future of their sector and that of the Swedish economy.
According to the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, half of the 36,600 international students enrolled at Swedish universities in 2008-09 were from outside Europe. In the previous four years, when higher education was free to all, the proportion of students from Asia increased from 24 to 40 per cent, with most hailing from China, Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh and India.
Initial data suggest that the introduction of fees is already radically changing behaviour.
Applications from non-EU students for entry in 2011 are down by 86 per cent on 2010, according to the Swedish Agency for Higher Education Services. Applications to master’s level courses have fallen by 73 per cent.
Git Claesson Pipping, general secretary of the Swedish Association of University Teachers, said that many postgraduate courses will be forced to close.
“What we expect is that the number of courses given to master’s students at that level will decrease,” Dr Claesson Pipping said. “We have too few home students who study scientific and technical courses.”
Some fear that the introduction of fees may damage Sweden’s high-level skills in science and technology.
Fewer master’s students and master’s programmes would result in a smaller pool of potential doctoral candidates, and as doctoral students often provide teaching support at universities, the introduction of fees could also have an impact on teaching capacity.
Eva Malmström Jonsson, deputy president of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, underlined the contribution that international students make to the country’s competitiveness by acting as advocates for its universities and its economy.
Diane Pecorari, senior lecturer in education at Mälardalen University, expressed a further concern. “We’re all very worried that we’re going to have a student body that sees itself as a client and will be more demanding,” she said.
Despite all this, the move is unlikely to generate extra money for Sweden’s academy. Although the new legislation allows universities to charge, fee levels may only cover costs.
“We don’t anticipate that the introduction of fees will bring in lots of money,” Professor Malmström Jonsson said.
“We hope that we can attract a reasonable number of fee-paying students this autumn, but we know that we will have to work hard over the years to come in order to spread knowledge about our strengths and qualities.”