Swedish universities nervously await ‘flood’ of adult learners

Funding reforms set to drive up demand, but institutions uncertain about likely intake and course interest

五月 11, 2022
Stockholm race
Source: Getty

Swedish universities face uncertainties over what courses to create or adapt to accommodate a potential “flood” of adult learners when more inclusive and generous financing comes into force next year.

Labour market shifts sparked or accelerated by the pandemic have got governments talking about adult education, but Sweden has been set up for it since the 1990s, with many universities offering access to modules without enrolment.

Changes in Sweden triggered by the pandemic mean that most adult learners can access grants and loans worth up to about 80 per cent of their existing salary. The government has set aside SKr260 million (£21.2 million) for universities to bulk up their lifelong learning offerings over two years.

Clas Hättestrand, vice-president of Stockholm University, where 42 per cent of courses can be taken either in isolation or by students building a degree from modules of their choice, said SKr260 million nationally would be “nowhere near enough” to accommodate a “flood of applicants”.

“We don’t know what this new support means for the number of applicants, and it’s also true that we have our fixed budget for education. So if the application market is flooded by new applicants, of course the competition will be much fiercer, and many students that perhaps were expected to start new studies in new subjects won’t be able to do so,” he said.

In addition to uncertainties about volume, it is unclear what the next generation of adult learners might want to study. Based on anticipated demand, Uppsala University is developing courses on the wider electrification of vehicles and other areas of society, said vice-rector Johan Tysk. “That’s something that’s driving us, and we believe the electrification process will not be done overnight,” he said.

Demand for environmentally friendly engineering might be a safe bet, but Professor Tysk said he was concerned that not all the university’s roughly 200 tailor-made adult learning courses would be ready when applications open in October.

Getting provision right was “particularly challenging” for comprehensive universities such as Stockholm, which offer mainly general, rather than professional, degrees, agreed Professor Hättestrand.

“We are quite used to working with lifelong learning courses for professional degree education. But for general degrees, it’s much harder to identify exactly what is the need from society,” he said, citing humanities subjects such as modern languages as an example.

While vocational courses have strong ties to industry and public bodies, he said, general courses get their direction and orientation from academics’ own understanding of labour market needs. “That relies more on the teachers and the staff at the university to have their fingers out in society and to know what is demanded,” Professor Hättestrand said.

Another problem bedevilling universities, Professor Tysk said, was that it was “not crystal clear what is lifelong learning and what is not”, but he added that the biggest challenge was “how to teach these students and how to package the courses, both time-wise and technologically”.

Swedish universities have decades of experience to build on, and Professor Hättestrand said the wisest would wait and see how many adults really have space in their life to retrain before transforming their offer.

“It’s not so easy to do so. You have to find the right courses. It has to fit within your traditional work as well if you’re studying part-time, for example,” he said. “It’s not like full salary payment is given to anyone who wants to go to study at the university.”




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