A number of reports published over the last few years point to the significant economic impact of the decision taken in 2011 to introduce tuition fees for international students at Swedish universities.
Since 2011, the number of fee-paying students has grown by close to 500%, from 1,469 in 2011 to 8,820 in 2021. If the trend continues, fee-paying international students will number 10,000 in 2023 and account for 25% of all international students in Sweden.
According to the Swedish Institute, in 2018-19 new fee-paying international students contributed an estimated SEK1.1 billion (about US$97 million) to the Swedish economy. The figure was based on tuition fees in Sweden for international students and the Swedish Migration Agency’s calculation of living costs in Sweden.
Course fees for international students at Swedish universities currently vary between SEK80,000 (US$7,000) and SEK140,000 per year (US$12,400). However, elite institutions like the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and the Royal College of Music charge around SEK255,000 (US$22,500) a year.
Swedish universities now offer more than 1,000 English-taught programmes, with some of the most popular subjects being engineering, IT, life sciences and business. Sweden also has a strong reputation in design and areas such as international relations and human rights.
A July 2022 report commissioned by the Swedish Institute from consulting firm WSP on the economic impact of international students estimated that in 2020-21 the impact of international students on the Swedish economy amounted to between SEK3.5 billion (US$309 million) and SEK4 billion (US$353 million), depending on the scenario.
The report said that both paying and non-paying free-mover students (not exchange students), accounted for 90% of this impact, ie, SEK3.2 billion to SEK3.6 billion. The economic impact of paying free-mover students accounted for SEK1.9 billion.
According to the report, 12% of fee-paying students in 2020-21 had a grant from Sweden that covered their entire tuition fee, while 20% had a grant covering the fee partially, meaning that two-thirds of students were paying the full tuition fees. The proportion of students with a grant from their home country is not registered in the statistics.
Also, in the percentage of free-mover students, which is much larger than the student exchange group, the proportion of fee-paying students increased from 25% in 2011 to 86% in 2020-21, meaning that only 1,331 international free-mover students did not pay tuition fees in 2020-21, the majority of these being from the European Union or the European Economic Area.
In the study year 2020-21, which was marked by COVID, the number of international students in Sweden was 33,300, a reduction from the year before of 6,310 students or 16%. Since the number of Swedish students increased, this led to a decrease in the percentage of international students from 9% to 7% of the total.
While the number of exchange students was reduced by 53% in that year, from 13,130 to 6,160, the number of free-mover students increased from 26,500 to 27,180, meaning that in the year 2020-21 free-mover students accounted for 82% of international students compared to 67% the year before.