What is it like to be a Swedish graduate student in the United States? Before being asked to write this article, I had hardly given the subject a single thought. I just assumed that it must be more or less the same as being an American student.
However, after pondering the question (and after listening to some very sharp analysis from my top advisor, my American wife), I realized there are many and substantial differences between the higher education systems in Sweden and the United States.
Indeed, the American system seems to have some real advantages, although, if current trends hold, they may not last much longer. To make these differences intelligible to many American readers, it is necessary to start with a brief overview of modern Swedish cultural history and the Swedish university system.
Sweden is heavily marked by its more than 500-year long history of political statism and a very orthodox form of Lutheranism, making its culture authoritarian in nature as early as the 1600s. Despite more than a century of modernization and various reformist policies on near-all fronts of public and private life, this heritage still forms the basis of most Swedes’ thinking and behavior.
For example, not only do a majority of voters regard paying more than 50 or even 60 percent of their incomes in taxes to be “fair,” but it is seen as necessary even by many right-wing (which in Sweden roughly equals classical free-market liberalism) politicians. Similarly, public regulations that punish people who do not hand over their kids to community daycare centers at a relatively early age are seen by most Swedes as signs of social “progress” rather than as unacceptable intrusions on their privacy.
This worldview has great influence on the Swedish academy. Most fundamentally, almost all universities in Sweden are owned, funded and operated by the national government, although various laws and statutes guarantee their formal independence and academic freedom. With a few privately founded exceptions like the Stockholm School of Economics, Swedish universities since the 1500s have continuously been integrated into the country’s socio-economic power structure.
For example, after the Social Democrat Party took power in 1932, universities morphed from being relatively conservative strongholds into progressive bastions that clearly reflect the new elite’s statist values. And they still do, because the government still formally appoints tenured professors and, for many intents and purposes, controls significant parts of universities’ daily operations by so-called goal specific grants. For instance, after Swedish politicians in the 1990s became obsessed with gender and climate change theories, they instituted generous endowments to support further “research” in these areas. I will leave it to the reader to guess what conclusions researchers have tended to reach.
Government control over the university system also formally includes most scientific education through institutions like the KTH (Royal Institute of Technology). However, since they operate in highly internationalized and competitive fields of research, the quality of technical education in Sweden tends to be very high.
All Swedish citizens have access to a “free” (read: taxpayer-funded) university education plus a six-year full-time stipend. Hence, students do not need to work to help with expenses if they do not want to (if they do and earn “too much,” their government scholarships are reduced). As a result of these policies, most students are not only isolated from society and its realities for a prolonged period during their formative youth, but they also grow comfortable with living on taxpayers’ money.
In addition, the academic work requirements are modest; a Swedish student is only expected to take one full-time course per semester (equivalent to roughly the same workload as 4-5 credits in an American class). Until recently, there were also only three score levels: fail, pass, and pass with distinction. To get the latter, except in more demanding fields such as medicine and law, you only need to work as hard as you would to earn a B in American universities.
That last circumstance is related to another fundamental difference. To earn an A in graduate school in the U.S., you must be active and distinguish yourself in class by active participation, such as asking questions and proving that you are able to think for yourself. Such behavior is also officially encouraged at Swedish universities. However, the operative word here is officially. Given Sweden’s authoritarian culture, talking too much, asking provocative questions, and—especially—criticizing your boss’s(or in this case, your professor’s) ideas will most definitely not advance your cause.
Rather, as a Swedish student, all you need to do is to sit back, take notes, and do well in your written examinations. Then, as long as you do not fail one of your master field courses, you will have automatically “earned” a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s. Consequently, university studies for most Swedes turn into a comparatively relaxed, six-year-long partying period. At the same time, since a whopping 45 percent of the Swedish workforce under the age of 35 has taken advantage of the system, Sweden today overflows with taxi drivers, janitors and factory workers holding advanced degrees in subjects such as literature, history and economics.
Thus, for me, coming to America and studying for a Ph.D. has been a thrilling experience, as I prefer serious learning to academic posing. What I especially like is that U.S. universities place much higher expectations on their students. Over here, a few Bs in graduate school may be okay, but one C and you may be ousted from the system. The focus on quality lectures and class requirements such as writing research papers every semester is also very stimulating, even if the workload sometimes feels a bit overwhelming. Most important, being treated as an adult rather than an over-age high school student feels great.
My biggest challenge has been the language rather than my studies per se. Although my English is decent (and improving), I still struggle with it—especially since my major field of study is political theory, which frequently means reading advanced philosophy. The copious amounts of synonyms and multiple meanings of words in the English language often make it hard to grasp the intricacies of certain texts. Reading the likes of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in English and fleshing out the quintessence of their thinking is still a true challenge, as is following the reading up by then writing a 30-page paper on their ideas.
I have also had to adjust to some cultural differences. For example, in Sweden—the land of not only economic equality but also extreme social equality—students frequently call professors by their first name. In the U.S., doing so can shock and sometimes even anger professors and other students. However, after having some time to adapt to this convention, I now appreciate it as a small but important marker that helps to uphold a proper level of respect between students and professors that is lacking at Swedish universities.
Another cultural difference is the age factor. My 43 years makes me one of the older Ph.D. students in my department. Still, I am not the only non-traditional student, with others right around my age. In Sweden, by contrast, there are very few such mature students. This is because most students complete their studies on their six-year government scholarship right after the gymnasium (secondary school), and those interested in the Ph.D.-level therefore attend graduate school in their mid-to-late 20s.
This skewed age-composition in Sweden has worsened since the late 1990s, when the government effectively outlawed funding your own Ph.D. studies with private savings or through working part-time. Nowadays, to be admitted to a doctoral studies program, you must either get a department scholarship or show upfront other personal funding equal to a four-year salary. Of course, most people earning that kind of money naturally prefer to continue working, rather than wracking their brains to compose politically correct seminar papers to be approved by Marxist professors.
Which brings me to one last observation, which will regrettably be to identify one not-so-flattering similarity between Swedish and U.S. university systems. American universities today appear to be heading down the same path as Swedish universities, in that they are adapting to the political climate, rather than being institutions for classical wisdom and critical thinking.
Many theories taught today by historians, sociologists. and political scientists in the U.S. are presented as impartial, cutting-edge ideas. However, being a Swede, I know socialism when I see it, and I am forced to conclude that getting an apolitical education in the U.S. in many schools no longer is an option.
Still, there is hope for U.S. students. In America, students can still choose between a wide number of private and religious universities (like my own) that at least attempt to offer a more balanced education. But there is also cause for despair, as liberal academics are now streaming into and swamping many of these institutions, and even the alternatives seem to be waning.