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Euro visions: Taking students seriously in Sweden

As Sweden prepares for another win in the Eurovision, Jim Dickinson reflects on what happens when a sector takes seriously something that many dismiss as frivolous
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

All being well, Sweden is going to win the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest.

The artist Loreen, who won back in 2012 with the song Euphoria, is making a triumphant return to the contest with a spine-tingling 150BPM banger about the thought of saying goodbye to a partner if a relationship was to break down.

It’s an impressive piece of pop music – and another in a long line of examples of Sweden taking something many dismiss as silly really seriously.

I’m very pleased about this, because also all being well it means that I will have an excuse to return to Stockholm (or Gothenburg, or Malmö) in May 2024.

And that means that as well as gorging on hot dogs from the nearest 7/11 and being even more alarmed at the price of lager than I am in London, I’ll have the chance to re-immerse in Swedish higher education.

We’ve gone the wrong way Mike

I’d first visited Stockholm with student movement historian Mike Day and then NUS President Gemma Tumelty in 2006, when the country was debating (and subsequently introduced) legislation banning the compulsory membership of students’ unions.

There were lots of fascinating things about the trip – not least the extraordinary spectacle of a country and a sector perfectly able to cope with a few inches of snow (in marked contrast to the near-collapse of English infrastructure at the first flake), and it inspired us to establish contact with European colleagues (principally through exhausting January coach trips) a decade or so later.

What really struck us was the seriousness with which student participation was taken, and the extent to which that had led to the rights of students being accepted and enshrined in legislation – rights that are often rejected here on the false basis that students having some power somehow makes them consumers.

By law, for example, students have the right to access health care (including prevention) that the university is responsible for providing. They are also entitled to support in their studies, a good “study environment” and careers support:

The higher education institutions shall be responsible for providing students with access to health care, in particular preventive health care intended to promote the physical and mental health of the students. The higher education institution shall also be responsible for other student welfare activities to support students in their studies or facilitate their transition to the labour market as well as otherwise providing students with a sound environment in which to study.

The right of students to exercise influence over their education is a central principle in Swedish higher education legislation. Although SUs are no longer allowed to have automatic membership, universities have to ensure that students are able to take an active part in decision making.

Student representatives have the legal right “to be represented when decisions are made or preparation takes place that are important for the education or the students’ situation”, and that means students having a demonstrable impact in almost every aspect an HEI.

At Malmo, a dedicated policy on student influence negotiated between the SU and the university identifies three types of student influence. “Formal” student influence means students appointed in the university’s decision making committees and bodies, for example boards and committees for education issues, research issues and gender equality issues. Students have to be given the opportunity to influence at an early stage of decision making. “Semi-formal” student influence goes on within programmes – student evaluation surveys and course level discussions. and informal student influence.

And then “informal” student influence means the daily and direct communication between student and teacher / other staff, where “it is necessary that teachers and other staff are encouraging and accessible and receptive to the students’ views”.

Meanwhile in Jonkoping, the SU promotes itself with an education focus – “Is your education not good enough or do you just have questions and concerns? The Student Union will help you with everything that concerns your education”. The “main function” of the SU is to “ensure you receive high quality education. It’s important that you have access to information about your rights, obligations, and the rules and regulations of the university”.

Course evaluations are described as “the fundamental building block of our monitoring system” as students provide “valuable information for improvement via the course evaluations you complete after each course”. Course reps here are framed as “Course evaluators”. Their task is to “gather the students’ opinions on the course” measured against various stated quality aspects and, based on these, discuss improvements with the course coordinator”.

For all universities and colleges, there is a statutory requirement to carry out a course evaluation after completing the course. Students must have an opportunity to give comments on the course, and the university has to present the results of the previous course evaluation, and what measures were taken as a result, prior to the course. “Closing the feedback loop” isn’t a good idea if someone has time – it’s the law.

Environmental concerns

It’s not just about programmes. When a disciplinary case is initiated against a student, they have certain rights and obligations in law. Universities also have an obligation by law to offer students access to study guidance and careers support. And students are also (almost) as protected in relation to health and safety as employees.

Across the country through SUs and their constituent subject, faculty and department associations, something called studerandekyddsombuds (student protection officers) are elected, distinct from course reps, who monitor everything from bullying and harassment, disability discrimination and physical safety like lighting on campus.

As with most countries that have expanded participation, there’s a student accommodation crisis – but there is evidence of innovation in tackling it. SFS (Sweden’s NUS) runs a student city of the year project that focuses on efforts made by the local authority and university to make a city student friendly. Criteria includes work on housing, transport and civic engagement – there is much competition to get the award, and its impact on more powerful municipal bodies is palpable.

More generally, SFS is an established and official “referral body”, which means it is asked to submit comments on issues concerning students, higher education and research in particular. Because it is fairly small, and can’t cover every committee and working group through its own officers, each year invites students and member union officers to apply to be a rep. Local SUs adopt a similar approach, swapping the UK’s lazy “stick a sabb on it” approach for one that sees many hundreds of students supported to sit on boards, committees and councils.

There’s a particular focus on Doctoral (PhD) students. SFS-DK is a committee which works on issues that concern doctoral students, giving them input on the governmental processes, laws and regulations that concern doctoral students and promoting issues that face doctoral students within SFS. It has recently published a handbook and a report on improving the experience of PhDs – and of course we should note that PhD students in Sweden are paid a salary.

Other campaigns have a relentless education focus. For example – a recent project (accompanied by evidence reports and clever policy) was all about demanding that teachers are better trained. Why is it that that type of activity is notably missing from the UK scene?

And the belonging thing is strong here too. At Linkoping, 2,000 students are trained by the SUs in how to be a peer student, whose job is to take care of new arrivals, and make sure they feel welcome. And Kalasmottagningen – new students’ day – includes teambuilding games, a fair and a concert featuring some of Sweden’s most popular musicians. The university is so proud of the programme that it credits it with generating the highest retention rate of students continuing to year two in the country.

Above all else, what is particularly striking about Sweden is the way in which we thought that the country and its universities treats and regards students. When (largely) young people are positioned as real partners with real power in the educational endeavour, they take its development and success seriously.

That so many students in the UK persist in attempts to improve their education, community and university when that participation is not taken seriously by those they seek to influence remains a source of shame. But even when you’ve been doing something badly for years and generating excuses about the results for decades, make the right decisions and you can always turn things around.

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