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Transnational Educational Strategies and Investments in Swedish Higher Education

Mikael Börjesson
ILU, Uppsala University
May 2001

My dissertation deals with the internationalization of higher education in Sweden. This is comprised of, among other things, student mobility, change in curriculum to better meet international standards, investments in international research networks, and the marketing of universities on a global level. My aim is to ask Swedes studying abroad what their rationales are, their social backgrounds and their goals for the future, as well as to inquire into the efforts made by Swedish higher educational institutions to enhance their international contacts. An underlying hypothesis is that the internationalization of higher education cannot be understood without making references to the national educational system.

Despite the fact that universities have always been, in a sense, international, we currently see an increase in emphasis on international matters at all levels of educational systems. For example, there have been increases in the number of student exchange programs, foreign-language courses and globally organized courses on the Web, and also in multinational research cooperation. Most of these features are best understood as transnational, rather than international, since the former term captures all phenomena that transgress national borders, including those that are not mediated through the nation states and their bureaucracies. I will, hereafter, mostly use the term transnational.

In Sweden, the transnationalization of higher education was one of the most dominant features of higher education throughout the 1990s. With the widening of governmental financial aid for studying abroad in 1989, the number of Swedish students studying in foreign countries increased from 1,500 in 1989 to 25,000 by the end of the 1990s. This latter figure accounts for 10% of the total current Swedish student population within higher education. Furthermore, the transnationalization of higher education is not restricted to promoting student mobility. Of equal importance is the effort to create better conditions to compete for "good" students and researchers. It is also important to gain a reputation in the global educational market by offering foreign-language courses (predominately English) and establishing new courses, subjects and departments with an international focus. It is likewise essential to transform curricula to correspond more closely with the educational content of dominant countries (such as the U.S., Great Britain and France) and to make significant investments in the internationalization of research, with grants to enable Ph.D. candidates and postdoctoral scholars to enhance studies, teaching, and research in other countries.

Notwithstanding the recent transformations of higher education, only a few attempts have been made to understand the internationalization of higher education in Sweden. The present dissertation is an attempt to thoroughly examine the content of this so-called internationalization and one of the fundamental ideas of the project is that it is not possible to understand the transnational strategies without relating these to the national educational system. The project can be described according to the outline of its empirical investigations and the scope of the investigations. The following outlines a twofold strategy:

I first seek to understand the role of transnational investments at an institutional level, i.e., the transnational strategies of universities, professional schools and university colleges, as well as national agencies of higher education and foundations. In a study conducted in 1997, I demonstrated how the most dominant and prestigious professional schools and universities in Sweden were those that made the most profound transnational investments. They were also the institutions that truly competed in the global educational market. The study further indicated that the transnational investments for the less prestigious universities, professional schools and university colleges in the province, were aimed at defending and ameliorating the positions of the schools and colleges within the national field of education. I explain this dual function of the transnational investments as an outcome of the resources that the institutions have at their disposal. The elite institutions have most of the scarce resources, such as economic assets, reputed research, well-selected student populations, and symbolic capital (i.e., resources needed to compete in a global educational market). The less prestigious institutions lack most of these resources and hence have great difficulty competing in the global educational market. Nonetheless, the transnational strategies are crucial for the dominated institutions from the perspective of recruiting students. By investing heavily in exchange programs and offering students the possibilities to spend time abroad in sought-after countries, they work hard to overcome their poor academic reputation.

Second, my goal is to study the use of transnational educational investments among social groups. The first step in this endeavor is to understand what the studies abroad actually comprise, not only in terms of educational aspects but also in terms of such attributes as cultural competences, social relations, linguistic skills, and personal experiences. To achieve this end, I carried out two field studies: one in eleven states on the East Coast of the United States and one in Paris. The studies were based on a survey and a series of interviews. A preliminary finding from these investigations is that the studies abroad are much more diversified than the Swedish studies. For example, to be a holder of a diploma from one of the Ivy League universities in the United States or from one of the Grandes Écoles in Paris gives the student access to an almost global job market and entry into highly paid positions. In sharp contrast, studies at the less prestigious universities and university colleges may result in an education that is not recognized in Sweden or in the foreign country in which it was obtained. The sociological meaning of these different strategies has to be understood in relation to the Swedish system. For the first group, Swedish higher education is not sufficient for their aspirations, while for the latter group, studying abroad functions as a secondhand alternative since they seldom are qualified to enter the Swedish system.

After having acquired an idea of the content of studies abroad and the hierarchies of the different national educational systems, the second step involves analyzing the transnational strategies of social groups in Sweden. Through the government agency Statistics Sweden (SCB), it is possible to obtain data for all students studying in Sweden as well as those studying abroad using governmental aid (approximately more than 90% of the students utilize the government's financial system). For these populations, information about the students' former educational career and about their parents' professions, educational background, housing, and immigration status is added from the SCB data registers. This data gives opportunities to study the relations between the Swedish students studying abroad and those studying in Sweden. We can then determine, for instance, the relation between the most prestigious American universities and their counterparts in Sweden regarding the social characteristics of the Swedish students attending these educational institutions.