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Sweden

Higher Education


In the medieval ages, a universitas was quite unlike the sophisticated places of learning of modern times, amounting to a sort of guild of scholars with interest in learning. Back then, a universitas existed with a charter granted by the Catholic pope. Because of the charter, religious studies were always associated with these early educational gathering places that often amounted to study sessions in rented rooms. As merchants became successful in trade, many wanted their sons to gain social skills with other sons of influential men and to acquire knowledge of use throughout life. Society possessed a need for educated persons as clergy, secretaries to courts, physicians and other professional positions.

The first universities in France, Germany, England and Italy were founded when feudalism was at its height, unlike the founding of the University of Uppsala in 1477, a strong feeling of national pride resulted in an attempt to collect and organize the historical records of Sweden. The best known historian of the day was the scholar and university teacher Ericus Olai.

The university received little support and actually folded in the sixteenth century (1510) under Gustavus Vasa, then was reopened, with little additional support until early in the seventeenth century when there was perceived a need for educated public servants. The university in 1595 reopened and had no connection to Rome.

Gustav Adolphus undertook a reform of the University of Uppsala, in part to halt the flow of young scholars out of the country who had to seek an education in other countries. The university received a large endowment from Gustav Adolph, increasing the faculty size and curriculum offerings. At first the main reforms were in the subject areas of theology, accounting and philosophy. Sweden took the important step of adding a medical school in 1663. Also in the seventeenth century, a law division was offered.

According to the writings of historian Franklin D. Scott, even some peasant lads were permitted to obtain a university language in the seventeenth century; they paid their way by begging and by singing.

Other important institutions of higher education followed. Universities were built at Dorpat in 1632, Åbo in 1640, and Lund in 1668.

The Swedish state has, from the inception of higher education in the country, taken governing authority and responsibility for the education of its students. Even two former private universities, the University of Gothenburg and the University of Stockholm, respectively became state universities in 1954 and 1960.

The higher education system was extensively reformed in 1977. Nearly all postsecondary education was included in a single system, as the state created a uniform system that reached every level of postsecondary tertiary education. Reforms in 1977 and 1979 established broader policies for higher education, making entrance requirements into many study specialties far more rigorous than they had been.

In general, Swedish schools of higher education became far more selective. Higher Education programs were categorized into five specialties: administration and economics; technology; teaching, healthcare and medicine; and cultural work and social care. There also was greater emphasis on increasing the research component in schools of higher education. These reforms were the result of nine years of planning and discussion that followed recommendations by a 1968 higher-education fact-finding committee.

Another reform established by the government in 1977 was a cutoff point for the number of students that could be accepted by schools of higher learning. The decision on where to draw the line on the number of acceptances passed from the government to the institutions themselves during the transition to autonomy status during the 1993-1994 school year. Institutions were given some leeway to accept more students than the ceiling calls for if the institution can demonstrate it does so without relaxing its standards for a quality education for all students.

Both government or institutionally controlled schools are free of tuition in Sweden. That makes universities and colleges competitive since they must limit themselves to a certain number of acceptances each year. The aforementioned changes in the administration of institutes of higher education in the 1990s also resulted in the various institutions of higher education becoming generally more competitive. Also outlined were ways that independent colleges and universities can be established with the authority from the state to grant degrees.

The reforms also expanded the system of electives for students, giving those enrolled more flexibility in choosing studies reflecting their own professional and cultural interests. After the Swedish Parliament adopted reforms in 1992, the following year the Higher Education Act governed the system. The reforms led to a 50 percent increase in student enrollments in less than a decade. As of 1996-1997, just under one-third (30 percent) of Swedish upper school graduates attended a Swedish university or college within five years after finishing their secondary schooling, according to figures supplied by the Swedish Embassy in the United States. First-time enrollments annually reach 65,000.

Female students enroll in slightly higher numbers for undergraduate studies than do male students, according to 1996-1997 enrollment figures. In 1996-1997, some 57 percent of all higher education students at the undergraduate level were female for a total of 300,400. However, at the postgraduate level, women only made up 37 percent of all students, numbering approximately 17,000 females. The figures for undergraduate and postgraduate schooling include part- and full-time studies.

Instruction at the higher education level often is in lecture format to hundreds of students, as well as in seminars of about thirty students. The language of instruction is usually Swedish. Much course literature is in English, however.


Admissions: Swedish institutions of higher education require students to show evidence of completion of certain preliminary requirements. In addition to basic qualifications that are the same or similar at all higher education institutions, there are special qualifications and requirements for many specialties and programs. Basic requirements are certain standards set for all applicants. In general, students meet requirements if they hold a diploma from a Swedish upper secondary school or if they have a mastery of Swedish and equivalent qualifications from a foreign secondary institution. Applicants from another country may need to take and pass an intensive preparatory course in Swedish. Also requisite is a reading and speaking knowledge of English.

A certain number of admittance slots are held for new students. If applicants exceed places, selection is made on the basis of upper secondary grades or a voluntary national university aptitude test. For areas such as medicine, special tests of skills and interviews may be required.


Student Unions: It is mandatory for all students enrolled at Swedish institutions of higher learning to join student unions. These associations are dues-supported. Reminiscent of (though little resembling) trade guilds of the medieval era, these latter-day unions work to benefit students and to serve their interests. The unions have elected officials that give the students a voice in the state's educational system. They provide students with recreational, social, and visiting speaker opportunities. They also provide some welfare benefits at a time when student opportunities to earn an income are lower than they will be following graduation.

Nationally, the majority of unions belong to an umbrella group known as the National Association of Student Unions (NASU). NASU in 2001 serves approximately 200,000 students in Sweden.


Healthcare & Disabled Students in Higher Education: All citizens in Sweden are entitled to medical care paid for by the government. In addition, each university and college operates health centers with healthcare professionals on staff.

Students with disabilities are given special attention by Swedish universities, and in recent years there have been modifications of facilities on most or all campuses to meet the requirements of students with special needs. Universities are required by the government to apportion up to 15 percent of annual undergraduate expenditures to meet the needs of the disabled. Other funding options from the government and private sources also are available to institutions of higher learning.

The government maintains a central office to coordinate the disbursement of state funds benefiting disabled students that are awarded institutes of higher education. The national coordinating office is located on the campus of Stockholm University.


Academic Appointments: Since the 1993-1994 academic year, when institutes of higher education were given great autonomy by the state, individual institutions received complete authority to appoint staff and establish teaching chairs. The state, through the Higher Education Ordinance, continued to mandate the categories of academic appointments. Also, following procedures established by the state in 1986, academic duties may include any or all of the following responsibilities: teaching, research, counseling, educational and administrative duties.

University academic appointments are state civil-servant positions. These appointments under four categories in descending order of importance: professors, senior lecturers, lecturers and research assistants.

  • Professors' main responsibilities are to research and supervise post-graduate studies; they also perform some teaching. Research has held an elevated place in the Swedish national consciousness for hundreds of years. In the eighteenth century, the esteemed natural scientist Carolus Linnæus (1707-78) was awarded a seat in the Swedish House of Nobility. Also in the eighteenth century, astronomer and mathematician Anders Celsius (1701-44) was the Swede who created the Centigrade measurement system.
  • Senior lecturers hold the doctorate and are mainly engaged in undergraduate teaching and research.
  • Lecturer appointments do not mandate that the candidate hold a doctorate. All faculty involved in teaching must demonstrate satisfactory teaching skills to obtain an appointment. Research assistants are often doctoral students or graduates seeking a full-time teaching position.

Swedish higher education is under the supervision of the Ministry of Education and Science with one main exception. That exception is: The University of Agricultural Sciences is supervised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries.


Economic Aspects of Higher Education: In 1993, Sweden's government introduced sweeping changes in the way it disburses funds for undergraduate education. The new system is said to be results-oriented. What that means, in essence, is that continued and additional funding is given out by state agencies based upon specified criteria met or exceeded by colleges and universities. More than half (60 percent) of the annual government grant is drawn up based upon the number of credit points earned by students. The rest (40 percent) is directly dependent upon the number of full-time students enrolled at a particular college or university.

After the Government decides upon amounts of aid based on this formula, moneys are paid by the state to each college and university. Money for post-graduate education and research are paid through one funding source. Undergraduate education is paid for through another source. Parliament also pays for such expenses as campus upkeep, classroom furniture, and updated equipment.

The entire maximum allotment that an institution might receive is legally set up in a three-year "education task contract" agreed upon by the Ministry of Education and Science and each institution.


Postgraduate Education: Postgraduate education is offered by a relatively small number of Swedish universities (for example, Gothenburg, Linkööping, Lund, Stockholm, Umeää, and Uppsala), the Karolinska Institute (Stockholm), Luleää University of Technology, the Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm), the Stockholm School of Economics, Chalmers University of Technology (Gothenburg), the University College of Jöönköping, and the University of Agricultural Sciences (Uppsala).

Postgraduate education requires an applicant to have completed an undergraduate program equivalent to at least three years' full-time study. Admission to a specialty requires an applicant to have completed at least sixty points in the specialty subject. A faculty admission board assesses each applicant's potential to complete doctoral studies.

Postgraduate education leading to the doctorate is generally the equivalent of four years' study, coursework, and dissertation research and writing. The doctoral student is assisted by a committee and senior faculty members who provide individual supervision. The dissertation must receive a defense and is graded pass or fail.

In place of doctoral studies, some students pursue a licentiate degree which is a research degree normally taking two years, the equivalent of a master's degree in the United States. Some who get this degree later elect to pursue doctoral study as well.

Many generous means of support are available for students pursuing postgraduate studies. Money is channeled to university faculties to be given to students for fellowships or teaching assistantships that can be renewed up to four years. Other money for qualified students can be obtained by working on funded research projects.


Vocational Education: Vocational education in Sweden began long before it was established as an industrialized nation. Christopher Polhem, an engineer, is credited with being the first to begin a technical school in 1697.

Vocational education received considerable state support in the 1940s. Following World War II, vocational education began to fall under the province of the state's authorities, and by the 1970s, this system was fully implemented in Sweden. During the late 1980s, the central government was fully responsible for vocational education.

As of 1993-1994, while the state continued to stress the importance of quality vocational education, it ceded power to supervise to municipalities as education across the board became decentralized, and private industry provided considerable financial support.

In the 1990s, as the manufacturing industry changed rapidly, vocational improvements in education and training had to be made to keep up. For a time, industry officials had criticized vocational education, claiming that a gap existed between the skills employees needed to possess and those they polished in schools. Various interest groups put pressure on school authorities in various municipalities to introduce improvements in the curriculum.

Perhaps the biggest improvement in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a shift from the two-year curriculum emphasizing practical skills in workshops without many apprenticeship opportunities, to a three-year industrial program combining practical knowledge with extensive theoretical knowledge and the ability to solve problems at work.

In 2001, Sweden's industrial curriculum continues to be a three-year, full-time, upper secondary education program. In addition to required classes, students are offered some optional classes to pursue subjects of their greatest interest and internship or apprenticeship opportunities on the job. Swedish commentators have remarked how the reforms have given the labor market a steady supply of skilled workers.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceSweden - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education