Starting school at the age of seven, in a mediocre suburb just north of Stockholm, I rarely questioned the Swedish education system, or its (arguable) decline. I did not pay much attention to school at all. Nor did I do my homework. My teachers believed that hard work and nothing else should pay off, and if it paid off, it should not pay off too much. To their exasperation, I somehow managed to stay not only afloat, but even ahead. By the age of 10, I had completed all the maths books the school owned; and as my friends were learning how to spell their names, I was ploughing through literary classics at the speed of light. Needless to say, I was full of myself (I still am, I guess, writing this).
But. To my huge frustration and despair, one particular subject brought me back to reality at regular intervals. Three times a week came this humiliating moment, which was our English class. Although I excelled at grammar exercises, I was spectacularly useless at speaking. Scandinavians, as you might have been told, speak such good English because they import so much subtitled American TV. I spoke such bad English because I did not watch TV. My parents had different views on childrearing. This also proved to be a social handicap later, but that is another story.
As the school years went by, this failure to succeed became something of a personal complex.
I reasoned that my future career, life, well-being, happiness were all entirely conditional on my ability to master the English language. As graduation came closer, I had only two things on my mind – partying like crazy (to prove that I was not as boring as I thought everyone thought I was), and going to an English-speaking country. It did not take me long to figure out that enrolling to a UK-based language school, for long enough to make something decent out of my desperate case, would turn into rather a costly affair. As an alternative, I came to the conclusion that the most affordable option was to register for a full university degree. Surely, this would be a great way of immersing myself in the language, and I could probably also pick some other skills along the way. Two birds kind of thing.
As my school grades were as good as they could get, I could pick whatever subject I wanted, and chose one that I believed would involve things I was good at – drawing and calculating. This way, I could focus on the language. Four years later, I graduated with a first class honours MA, later followed by an MSc, from one of the top 30 universities in the world, according to recent international university rankings. (In comparison, QS World University Rankings ranked Lund University as the best Swedish University on the 70th position worldwide, Times Higher Education Rankings and Shanghai University Rankings ranked Karolinska Institute at place 44 and 48, respectively.)
I missed the Swedish weather(!), though; the wild swimming opportunities
After seven years abroad, I returned to Stockholm, expecting an eager welcome from potential employers and a subsequent jump-start into a successful career. How shocked was I, to encounter the lukewarm interest, or, rather, awkward expressions of sympathy, for my educational record and achievements. I had difficulty believing what I discovered: Everyone assumed that the very reason I had studied abroad was that I had not been admitted to a Swedish university. That my choice of educational institution was a Plan B, or C. And even more shockingly, that everything I had learnt and mastered was not good enough, according to Swedish standards. Expectations on skills are much higher in Sweden, I was told, than abroad – although the latter term was very vaguely defined.
Now, this is not an article about my unacknowledged talent.
Mission accomplished. I did improve my English. And I picked up some useful skills along the way. Even though my career did not turn out in a way I ever imagined, I could hardly be more satisfied at this moment. What concerns me is rather, that beyond my personal case, this reflects a structural problem in Swedish society. I can not be the only one whose non-Swedish, but prestigious academic record is received as something home-cooked from behind a bush. In contrast to me, these individuals may have to rely more on their formal qualifications than I have to do. This, I find very very worrying, as being able to identify and recruiting international talent is becoming increasingly urgent with global mobility and migration.
From where did we get the idea of our superior educational system?
Back in the 90’s, whilst I was busy not doing my homework, we were always reminded of how lucky we were to be growing up and going to school in Sweden. Sweden, we were told, despite being such a small country, was world leading in education (amongst many other things, of course). And although the last PISA results are telling us a completely different story, these arguments are still somehow valid, depending on how you interpret the numbers. The education system is designed to make everyone pass rather than creating an elite. This means an accessible and inclusive school environment, with a slow place that leaves few behind. Hence, literacy rates are outstanding. And, yes, we do consistently top some OECD charts – in terms of number of people that have attended each educational level, including doctoral.
And this is exactly where I think we draw the wrong conclusion.
While any Swedish citizen is more likely to have attended higher education than the OECD average, this does not in any way imply that Swedish institutions, or the graduates themselves, are better. No, it says there are more of them. We are simply confusing the numbers. Nor does it means that we are taught some essential skills that are unknown of, beyond our borders. And please do not tell me that your competence need to be adapted to the local market. That is an excuse. The big challenge, these days, is to adapt to the global market.
In fact, I would argue that higher education is more globalised, and uniform in content, than any other institutional practice. Academia is, at its core, meritocratic, as well as open to foreign influence and exchange. Regardless if your graduate has attended a Swedish, Chinese, Argentinian or Korean university, they have probably paid library fees for the same pieces of course literature, procrastinated the same essay questions, and slept through symposia with the same guest lecturers. And if, at some point in between all of this, they learnt something, it was also probably the same.
Whilst saying that there are only minor differences in educational content, I am not claiming there are no differences in quality.
Of course, there are, the same way any Swedish recruiter or potential employer knows there are differences also on a domestic scale. But would you be able to name even half of the top ten universities of Asia? In Europe? Thought so. For these purposes, there are international university rankings published on a regular basis. Although qualitative assessment can never be objective, and different methodologies are used, comparing a few of those can give a good indication of the value of your candidate’s diploma. Google it. For anyone convinced that Sweden is the very home of this planet’s leading universities, such reading could also be a well-deserved wake-up call.
Form, not content, is culturally contingent
Although comparable curricula are adhered to internationally, national culture affects under what form these take place. For example, the idea of registering to individual courses without completing a full degree, is inconceivable in many places. This possibility is actually one of the reasons why there are so many Swedes attending higher education, compared to elsewhere. Likewise, whereas in many countries you cannot continue your programme having failed an exam twice, you can re-sit an exam virtually an infinite number of times in Sweden. This, combined with generous student grants and loans, and no tuition fees, makes it very easy to go through higher education. Inflation is inevitable.
I am not personally against the Swedish system. I believe it shows great respect for each individual, and their struggles. It shows of humanity, pragmatism, humility, holism. But it says itself; if you want everyone to pass, you have to lower the bar. Being world-leading in education does not come for free. It is on the expense of high-achievers. The Swedish education machine does not create a few geniuses, it delivers a predictable, consistent average. Bear that in mind.
Your international job candidate may not comply with the Swedish average. They may have different ideas, perspectives, opinions. They may be exceptional.