Fees and bureaucracy obstacles for foreign students

Only 30 per cent of students from outside the EU/EEA and Switzerland who are admitted to higher education institutions in Sweden actually begin their studies. Registration fees, the requirement to pay a large portion of the tuition fee in order to apply for residence permits and long waits for residence permits, all contribute to a large proportion of paying students dropping off during the admission process.

Commissioned by the government, UKÄ (Swedish Higher Education Authority) has made a survey of the system of tuition fees for third-country students.

There are several thresholds in the recruitment process where we lose students. Fees are likely the main reason, because a large part of the tuition fee must be paid in order to apply for a residence permit. There are scholarships available but not enough to cover the needs of all students, which means that large amounts must be paid by individual students, says Annika Pontén, acting head of UKÄ.

Application process for residence permits an obstacle

The residence permit for the student must be granted in time so that the stay in Sweden can be properly prepared.

The HEIs state that the application process for residence permits is the biggest challenge right now. Sometimes students do not get their permit in time. This is a frequent reason why HEIs refund tuition fees, says Annika Pontén.

When tuition fees for students from outside the EU/EEA and Switzerland were introduced in 2011, the number of third-country students decreased by 80 per cent. The number has increased since then, but there are still much fewer students from outside the EU/EEA and Switzerland than before 2011. The student population has also become more homogeneous, with less diversity in countries of origin of the students.

Summary of the report Survey of tuition fees

Report on a government assignment

In the summer of 2016, the Government tasked UKÄ (Swedish Higher Education Authority) with surveying the tuition fees introduced from the autumn semester 2011 for third-country students. The Authority was to answer several questions about the size of tuition fees and how the higher education institutions (HEI) apply the rules relating to these fees. The recruitment process and the option of separate admission of fee-paying students would also be mapped, as well as how student mobility has changed – particularly for students from countries with which Sweden has long-term development cooperation. The survey was also to examine the impact of scholarships on recruitment, changes in offered courses and programmes and whether third-cycle recruitment has been affected. This report is the Authority’s presentation of this assignment. The survey was conducted in close cooperation with the Swedish Council for Higher Education (UHR).

Tuition-financed education more expensive than state-financed

The introduction of tuition fees led to new administrative costs for HEIs, such as, for managing tuition fees and scholarships. This could justify higher tuition fees than the state compensation paid per student. It is not, however, clear what additional costs should be covered by tuition fees. The HEIs have slightly different interpretations of the regulation that they are to cover all costs; some include, for example, provisions for scholarships in their tuition fees.

The average tuition fee for programmes with fee-paying students in 2015 was just over SEK 125,000 per academic year. This can be compared with the average reimbursement of SEK 76,000 for a student with direct government funding. A partial explanation for the difference is that fee-paying students often choose more expensive academic programmes. Most universities have a few fee levels to which they assign the various programmes based on estimated costs.

When setting fees, HEIs seem to consider other aspects, in part, and HEIs can, in some instances, adjust fees to market prices. This applies particularly to the HEIs that want to compete with prestigious universities in other countries and therefore do not want to charge too little compared to them. Swedish tuition fees are sometimes seen as high, but internationally, the fees for attractive programmes are often higher.

Rules for refunding tuition fees need clarification

HEIs may pay back tuition fees to a student if the student is prevented from participating in the programme for special reasons. The HEIs, however, define what these special reasons may be – neither regulations nor the preparation work for the regulations provide any guidance in how this should be applied. The HEIs apply the rules for refunding tuition fees differently; some are more generous than others in refunding fees. Some HEIs require refund applications to be received within a specific period for the application to be accepted, even though the HEIs do not have authority to impose any time limit.

Another difference in how HEIs apply the refund provisions is that some charge an administrative fee for the refund, while others do not. The size of this administrative fee also varies significantly.

The authority sees a clear need to clarify the refund rules for tuition fees.

Separate admission of fee-paying students still rare

After pressure from the HEIs, separate admissions of fee-paying students became possible in 2014, i.e. after tuition fees had been charged for a few years. This enables the HEIs to decide how many fee-paying students and students with direct government funding they accept to their programmes. HEIs that use separate admissions usually do so with specific courses and programmes. For example, courses taught in English or second-cycle programmes could have separate admissions.

Relatively few HEIs, however, do so. Ten have made use of this option. One explanation for this is that the joint admissions system, NyA, admittedly offered this option in its system support prior to the autumn of 2015, but it did not function optimally. In preparation for the autumn semester 2017, the Swedish Council for Higher Education is planning to improve the support system in NyA.

Slow recovery in the number of incoming students from Sweden's long-term development partner countries

After increasing significantly for several years, the number of incoming students fell sharply when tuition fees were introduced. At the same time, the pattern for which countries these incoming students come from also changed. This is because free-movers mainly come from outside the EU/EEA and the number of these students decreased drastically, while exchange students, who mostly are from the EU/EEA, were not affected by the charges.

The decrease in free-movers was greater among men than women, which resulted in the proportion of women among all incoming foreign students rose from 47 to 52 per cent between academic years 2010/11 and 2011/12.

Among paying students, the proportion of women is lower. As the number of paying students has increased, the proportion of women among them fell to 40 per cent as of academic year 2015/16 since the number of paying male students increased more.

Before the reform, the number of incoming students from Sweden's development partner countries increased from 760 to 2,190 between academic years 2006/07 and 2010/11. When tuition fees were introduced, this number dropped to 970, and it remains at about this level.

As for incoming students from other third countries, recruiting efforts by the HEIs appear to have yielded results, with the number of paying students from these countries increasing significantly. But the recovery in the number of incoming students from Sweden's development partner countries is significantly slower.

The recruitment process – large drop between admission and registration

Fee-paying students have many more steps in the recruitment process compared to non-paying students. To have their applications processed, they must pay a registration fee of SEK 900, which many applicants may perceive as high. At this stage, many applicants already give up.

The next major loss of applicants occurs not in the admissions process, but at registration time. To travel to Sweden and begin a programme, fee-paying students must have paid the tuition fees and received temporary residence permits. Many applicants apply for scholarships in parallel with the admission process, and for many accepted applicants, a scholarship is a prerequisite for registering and beginning studies at a Swedish university.

This means that there is a significant drop off in fee-paying applicants between admission and registration. In the autumn semester 2016, only 30 per cent of the accepted paying applicants registered at a Swedish university. The corresponding number was significantly higher among accepted applicants who were Swedish residents: 80 per cent.

This low proportion of registered fee-paying students can lead to significant uncertainty for HEIs in how they should dimension their programmes.

Scholarships affect the ability to recruit paying students

The recruitment of fee-paying students from certain countries is clearly dependent on scholarships, but this varies widely. For incoming students from some of Sweden's development partner countries, there is a direct correlation between mobility and the availability of scholarships.

According to the HEIs, there needs to be more scholarship programmes with open scholarships that cover both tuition fees and living expenses. It is difficult to compete for the most qualified students if universities cannot offer this. One of the State scholarship programmes offer these types of scholarships, but they are awarded by the Swedish Institute and are aimed at applicants from developing countries.

In this context, it is interesting to note that of the scholarships from the other State scholarship programme that the HEIs control, 90 per cent also go to students from developing countries.

In total, almost 40 per cent of paying students have Swedish scholarships.

An increase in the number of programmes open for international applicants

When tuition fees were introduced, many HEIs re-examined their range of programmes aimed at international students and their efforts with exchange agreements and contract education. In this survey, a majority of the HEIs said that they have not made any major changes because of the tuition fees. However, both the range of programmes offered in the international admissions rounds and the proportion of education in English have increased. There are variations between HEIs, but overall the national picture is that the range of programmes for international applicants has increased.

Fees likely impact recruitment to third-cycle programmes negatively

Since 2013, the number of new third-cycle students decreased, both for Swedish and foreign doctoral students. Among the foreign students, however, there has only been a decrease among students from outside the EU/EEA and Switzerland. A study of this development combined with the HEIs’ survey responses has led the Authority to conclude that the introduction of tuition fees at the national level likely had a negative impact on recruitment to third-cycle programmes. However, there are variations between HEIs, and a few HEIs say tuition fees had a positive effect.