Unique data reveal significant social differences in higher education in the Nordic countries

09.11.2016
Despite major restructuring of the universities and university colleges in the Nordic countries in the past 30 years, the social structure has remained remarkably stable. The traditional elite university programmes are still dominated by students with a higher socio-economic background, while young people from the working class make up the majority of students in the shorter vocational programmes.

“Medicine is still the most exclusive education to pursue. We thought we would find greater changes in social and gender structures over time, with various educational areas attracting new groups of students and challenging the traditional elite fields,” says Professor Mikael Börjesson of Uppsala University.

Together with other Nordic researchers, Professor Börjesson has conducted an in-depth analysis of unique data to learn more about changes in Nordic higher education in the past 30 years. It is the first time that higher education in the Nordic countries has been compared in this manner.

“Only the Nordic countries have this type of information at the individual level, with data on the social background and secondary school education and marks of nearly all students. This information has enabled us to compare the different countries with great accuracy while at the same time giving us a contemporary historical analysis of changes over time,” explains Professor Börjesson, who heads the project “Nordic Fields of Higher Education” under NordForsk’s Education for Tomorrow programme.

Medicine’s unique status

The professor is enthusiastic, as years of diligent effort are now paying off. The researchers have looked closely at the gender and social background of students in higher education, at the structure of higher education and at how students are recruited. The findings show that social and gender differences are quite similar across the Nordic countries.

“Each of the countries has gone in a slightly different direction and introduced different changes, but when we analysed student recruitment we found a surprisingly stable pattern,” says Professor Börjesson.

He points out that medical studies are still in a league of their own status-wise in the Nordic countries.

“The continued elite standing of medicine is related to the fact that it is extremely difficult to get into a programme. We need to carry out more precise analyses of why certain university programmes – not just medicine, but also law, dentistry and longer arts education programmes – have retained such selective recruitment and such a dominant position in all of the countries,” he says.

“We also found differences among the Nordic countries. For example, the number of applicants to sociology is very high in Denmark, which makes it almost an elite educational programme. This is a status the field does not share in the other countries,” adds the professor.

Engineering studies dropped like a stone

The number of students in economics and social science has grown in all of the Nordic countries.

“It is also interesting to see how the size of certain educational fields varies from country to country. For example, technical education is popular in Finland, whereas it is the humanities and social sciences that attract the most students in Norway,” states Professor Börjesson.

The researchers also explored how the countries’ different educational systems affect the size of the study programmes. When Sweden, for instance, introduced a market-oriented system in 1993, the university colleges were made responsible for deciding themselves which programmes to offer. Programmes in some fields expanded quickly, while others were abandoned by students.

“As an example, the popularity of engineering studies in computer science rose dramatically in the 1990s, but dropped like a stone after the collapse of the dot-com bubble in 2001. This illustrates how the university colleges have responded quickly to the needs of trade and industry. Educational programmes in the area of health and care have remained more stable in size as they respond to the needs of the public sector,” explains the professor.

Recruitment to teacher education difficult

Teacher education in Finland is very popular among students. This contrasts markedly with the situation in the other Nordic countries, where it has been difficult to recruit students into shorter teacher education programmes in particular.

“In a market-oriented system it is more difficult to shift students from one area to another, and educational programmes that do not attract students will have problems. This will in turn will lead to a situation where the study programmes offered do not always adequately match the needs of the labour market.”

While it was not the original objective of the project to look at the important relationship between higher education and the labour market, this has emerged as an important topic in need of further investigation.
“It would also be extremely interesting to analyse the internationalisation of the university colleges, the mobility of students between the Nordic countries and how the global stream of students is affecting recruitment at the Nordic university colleges,” says Professor Börjesson.

To obtain an even more comprehensive picture of the social structure of Nordic higher education, it will be necessary to look more closely at how academic staff at universities are recruited.

The project results were presented at a conference at Uppsala University on 28–29 September 2016.

More information about the project's findings.

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