Swedish universities are using quizzes, competitions and other unusual strategies to help address a shortfall in overseas students caused by the introduction of tuition fees.
When annual tuition fees upward of Skr80,000 (£7,930) were brought in for 2011-12, it led to a 79 per cent decline in new students from outside the European Union.
Particularly badly hit were two-year master’s degrees in the English language that several universities had been developing as part of internationalisation strategies.
Two years ago, the Swedish Institute and seven leading universities joined forces with a Stockholm-based company called Student Competitions to respond to the challenge.
A programme of springtime competitions was launched in Brazil, China and Malaysia, with winners being given a chance to spend time in Sweden visiting companies and universities.
The Brazilian contest required applicants to complete a quiz about “connections and collaborations between Sweden and Brazil” and a quiz about Sweden itself, and to write a personal statement in which they were urged to “pick a Swedish innovation and tell us how it could improve your life in Brazil”. Two winners spent a week exploring the “land of the Nobel Prize, Skype, the three-point safety belt, Spotify and Tetra Pak”.
More focused scholarship competitions, requiring applicants to demonstrate a knowledge of particular disciplines, have now been rolled out in five countries.
The scholarship contests attracted around 10,000 entries last year worldwide (and 5,500 from India alone) and offered 10 winners a free place on a master’s programme at one of a number of institutions across Sweden.
For Gustav Borgefalk, co-founder of Student Competitions, the initiative represents “Sweden’s secret weapon in the war for talent” and provides “a different way of certifying skills and finding golden nuggets. As students compete, they learn about the programmes and about the nation.”
Over and above the 10 guaranteed scholarship places – a number that is expected to double for the next academic year – there is also an indirect impact. Anyone taking part in one of the challenges is given a waiver on application fees to Swedish universities, which has led to a rise in entrants opting to study there. Some participants have secured scholarships from other sources.
Cecilia Hillman, project manager for international student recruitment at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, said she wanted to increase Chalmers’ proportion of non-EU students “both for the quality and environment of the university and to build an international cadre for research”. She observed that such competitions were an important “part of the marketing mix”.
While scholarship competitions in India, China and Brazil offer one student from each country a place at Chalmers, many others who performed well have decided to study there. Ms Hillman estimates that the total may have been 25 students in all (or 10 per cent of the total non-EU cohort) last year.