Higher education and research

Swedish higher education is ranked high by international comparison. Sweden also aims to be one of the most research-intensive countries in the world.

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Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se

Higher education and research

Swedish higher education is ranked high by international comparison. Sweden also aims to be one of the most research-intensive countries in the world.

Getting smarter in Sweden

With its emphasis on independent studies, Sweden is ranked among the world leaders in higher education. The teaching model applied at Swedish universities and university colleges is based on the motto ‘freedom with responsibility’. This means that students have somewhat less teacher-led time than is usual elsewhere, mainly pursuing their studies on their own or in groups.

The level of education among Swedes has risen sharply over the last few years. The autumn term of 2012 saw a record of 126,000 first-time applicants to higher education in Sweden. A total of 403,000 people applied and 257,000 were admitted.

Tuition fees and financial aid

Higher education in Sweden is financed largely by tax revenue. Earlier, this applied to all students regardless of nationality. However, in the autumn of 2011 tuition fees were introduced for students from outside the EU/EEA area, with the exception of Switzerland. The Government believes that Swedish higher education should compete in terms of quality and good conditions, not just by providing free education.

To enable students who cannot pay tuition fees to study in Sweden, the Government has allocated resources for two scholarship programmes.

The first programme awards grants through the Swedish Institute and totals SEK 100 million a year. This programme is aimed at highly qualified students from development countries and is designed to cover living costs and tuition fees.

The second programme, worth SEK 60 million, is aimed at highly qualified students from outside the EU/EEA area, barring Switzerland. Grants in this programme are intended to cover tuition fees and are awarded through the Swedish Council for Higher Education to universities and university colleges that already extend grants to students.

Responsibilities and targets

In Sweden, the Riksdag (parliament) and Government have overall responsibility for higher education and research, which means that they make decisions about targets, guidelines and the allocation of resources. Education and research are the remit of the Ministry of Education and Research.

As of 1 January 2013, the Swedish Higher Education Authority (Universitetskanslersämbetet) and the Swedish Council for Higher Education (Universitets- och högskolerådet) are the central government agencies responsible for matters relating to higher education. However, universities and university colleges remain separate state entities and make their own decisions about the content of courses, admissions, grades and other related issues.

The Swedish Council for Higher Education is responsible for admission issues, information concerning university-level studies, assessments of foreign qualifications, and international co-operation, among other things. The Swedish Higher Education Authority mainly has a scrutinising function, and is responsible both for reviewing the quality of higher education and granting degree-awarding powers. It is also responsible for the supervision of universities and university colleges, and for maintaining official statistics.

Group work is an integral part of Swedish higher education.

Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

Aims of higher education

The aims of higher education are governed largely by the Swedish Higher Education Act and the Higher Education Ordinance. They specify that all education at universities and university colleges should be based on scientific principles. Education should provide the following:

  • knowledge and skills in the relevant areas
  • an ability to make independent critical assessments
  • an ability to identify, formulate and solve problems
  • preparedness for changes in the student’s professional life.

Universities and university colleges have to ensure that students with disabilities have the same opportunities for study as other students.

Greater freedom

A reform introducing greater autonomy came into effect on 1 January 2011. It was designed to enable Sweden’s universities and university colleges to perform better in a highly competitive international sector. Among other changes, the reform provided universities and university colleges with more powers to determine their own internal structures. Two principles must always be observed: decisions that require an expert opinion must be made by two people with scientific or artistic expertise, and students are entitled to representation when decisions relating to education or student issues are made.


Just over 80 per cent of funding for Sweden’s universities and university colleges comes from the Government, of which 78.2 per cent is in the form of direct grants. A further 4.8 per cent comes from other public sources of funding. This means that in 2012, a total of 84.9 per cent of the institutions’ income came from public financiers of one kind or another in Sweden. The remaining funding came from private sources and financial revenue. The total cost for universities and university colleges in 2012 was SEK 60.7 billion.

The Bologna Declaration makes it easier for European students to study abroad. In 2011, Sweden introduced tuition fees for students from outside the EU/EEA area.

Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

Shared goals across Europe

The Swedish system of higher education has changed significantly in recent years as a result of what is known as the Bologna Process. The aim is to create an integrated European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

The Bologna Declaration derives its name from a meeting held in Bologna in 1999. A declaration signed there by 29 countries makes it easier for students and job-seeking university graduates to move across national borders within Europe. By now, nearly 50 countries have signed the agreement. Its three goals are to:

  • promote mobility.
  • promote employability; and
  • promote Europe’s competitiveness as an education continent.

In Sweden’s case, the Bologna Process has led the Riksdag to ratify the Lisbon Convention, which entails reciprocal recognition of degrees in other countries. Another result is that everyone who earns a university degree receives a diploma supplement, which makes it easier to use the degree abroad for further studies or employment.

New structure

Starting in 2007, in order to bring its higher education system in line with the EHEA, Sweden introduced a new structure compatible with the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS). The latter is designed to help recognition of a student’s studies between different institutions and countries.

All higher education programmes in Sweden are now divided into Bachelor, Master and research levels. As one progresses through these cycles, each year of full-time study corresponds to the ECTS standard of 60 credits, facilitating transfer and equal recognition throughout Europe.

The Swedish School of Textiles is one of few higher education institutions in the world with a full-scale textile-manufacturing environment.

Photo: Sofia Sabel

Major investments in R&D

Sweden aims to be a leading research country and one of the most R&D-intensive countries in the world, with research that is both broad and specialised.

In 2015, publicly funded research amounted to just over SEK 33 billion, or 0.8 per cent of GDP. Around 70 per cent of all of Sweden’s research is financed by companies.

An active research policy approach has enabled Sweden to acquire a leading position in several areas. One is environmental technology, particularly the treatment of emissions and toxic substances in production and manufacturing processes. Sweden also has a high level of expertise in nanotechnology research, where several major Swedish companies – including ABB, Sandvik and Höganäs – have become market leaders.

Government bodies

For research at universities and university colleges, the government is the largest source of funding. Four government bodies primarily fund research:

  • The Swedish Research Council: allocated SEK 6.4 billion in 2015 for research in the natural sciences, technology, medicine, humanities and social sciences, among other fields
  • Formas, the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning: allocates around SEK 1 billion per year for research in environment matters, agricultural sciences and spatial planning
  • Forte, the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare: allocates around SEK 500 million per year for research in labour market issues, work organisation, work and health, public health, welfare, social services and social relations.
  • VINNOVA, the Swedish Agency for Innovation Systems: allocates more than SEK 2.7 billion per year, primarily for research in technology, transportation, communication and working life.


Foundations are an important complement to direct government funding. Annually, more than SEK 1 billion is also allocated to research in Sweden through six state-funded foundations:

Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, an independent foundation financed by the Swedish Central Bank, is another major source of funding, allocating more than SEK 540 million to research in 2015.

Private organisations also make significant contributions to research funding. The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, for example, allocates around SEK 1.7 billion to research per year.

Last updated: 17 January 2020



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