Sunday, March 21, 2010

Tuition fees - a way to keep Sweden Swedish?

I live in Sweden together with my Bulgarian girlfriend who is studying on the psychology programme in Lund, one of our dear country's most renowned sites of education. The education itself is no doubt high class, but God knows that not everyone was prepared to accept a foreign student when we came here. She, and to some extent both of us, have encountered endless obstacles and more red tape than we could ever imagine. and we have both seen a lot.

The university of Lund is well accustomed to exchange students studying master programmes, but the prospect of an individual from Bulgaria who wants to enroll in a Swedish university just like one of us was, and for many is still is, beyond comprehension. I liked to think that that the two of us are the forerunners of a true European, or even global, generation, and that university staff will eventually get used to a world where people don't necessary live in one country their entire life. Also, my own positive memories form Swedish universities made me benevolent, and a few years in more chaotic countries has induced in me a profound respect for the Swedish kind of law-abiding bureacracy.

Maybe I was naïve, but five months ago I didn't interpret these obstacles as any institutionalised racism. But the recently announces decision to ask non-EU student for tuition fees made me suspicious, and the recent schism between our minister of higher education Tobias Krantz and Högskoleverket - the Swedish university authority , made my innocence look embarrasing.

The issue at hand is that mr. Krantz has proposed a system where foreign students are accepted
on certain quotas i.e. not in competition with Swedish students. While this might theoretically make it easier for foreign students to take a place on some programmes, all places on popular programmes, like the psychology programme, are likely to go to Swedish applicants, Högskoleverket warns.

Besides a long list of other complaints from various higher education education instances, the proposed legislation will probably have to be changed, since it breaks some fundamental EU principles. It is every European citizen's right to apply for education in any EU country and be treated as a native. In Brusells, and elsewhere in Europe this must seem like an unexpected outbreak of racism from a government that used to have a strong European profile. This is not the case. Neither is it incompetence or lunacy. It is part of a strategy from the Swedish government to safeguard the privileges of those being born into a Swedish bourgeoisie family, privileges that are under pressure in a globalized world. But to see that one must not see the university politics as separate from school politics. I believe that most foreign observers live in a blissful arrogance about the latter.

It will take me some time to clear out the concepts, but it is worth trying. Here is the first post out of three, that will deal mainly with the decision to ask non-EU students for tuition fees, starting in the autumn semester 2011. The entire article can be found on the Maladets! homepage

The decision was met with strong protests from students' organisations in Sweden, but for the wrong reasons, I am afraid. It is obvious that this is a first step and that later also Swedish and EU students will pay for their educatuon, and that is what the students' organisations fear. But few people have protested against the strange logic that asks an Albanian, Moldovan or Macedonian students to pay 10 000 EUR or less per semester to study something that would be free for anyone from Sweden or France, Protugal or Romania.

The motivation for the the decision is that Swedish citizens pay for the education through their taxes, while foreign citzens do not. Or in plain English - that Swedish parents are tired of financing other parents' kids' education in Sweden. That is a despicable populist argument. In a tax-funded system everyone pays for everyone's benefits. Some people pay more tax than others, is that unfair? Probably not more unfair than the fact that also children from rich families get a free education. I can not see why my tax money could not pay for an ambitious Moldovan Master student as well as some back slick Swedish economy student flying to Stockholm in the weekends and spending his summers in St Tropez. Let's use our tax money that create a world class system and let everyone who wants to compete for the places.

The argument also overlooks the great contribution that foreign students bring to Sweden. They are highly beneficial not only for universities, but also for society. International environments create oppurtunities for business that might not exist in less vibrant environments. Foreign students bring multiculturalism, innovation and new perspectives. Even if they don't pay a single Euro for studying here, they give something to Sweden that no money in the world can buy.
Stockholm in 1900 - Stockholm is a city that is built by immigrants, for immigrants, but no one benefited more than Sweden. Image from Riksantikvariembetet.

The only viable alternative to a system that is free for all is that everyone pays. All commentators agree is what the government utlimately wants to achieve, by small steps. Even our Minister of education would realize that it makes more sense that UK students pay than that Moldovans do.

The proposal for tuition fees includes two scholarships of approximately EUR 3 000 000 each, annualy. The first one is open for all applicants, and the money are supposed to cover tuition fees only. The second is open for students from developing countries like Bangladesh, Zambia and Burkina Faso only, and these money should also cover living costs. As politically correct as it may sound to support students from the developing world, it is basically cheap PR. The money will come from the foreign aid budget - the students receiving scholarships will replace small farmers, womens' NGO's and other recipients of Swedish foreign aid. And it is not just little cynical to hand out money that will return to Swedish bank accounts within a year as tuition fees.

One might wonder why a liberal government has chosen this path of action. If liberalism is defined a enabling individuals to make their own choices, it seems like free education is a much better way to give equal opportunities? But free education leaves too little room for politicians' desire to control.

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