If you’re planning to study in Europe, then Scandinavian universities should definitely be on your list. Find out why you should consider studying in Denmark, Sweden or Norway – or nearby Finland or Iceland (these last two are not technically part of Scandinavia, but are within the Nordic group).
1. Support for research and innovation
If one word was chosen to sum up the Scandinavian countries, ‘innovative’ would surely be a high contender. All three of these Northern European nations score consistently well on global surveys intended to measure how innovative and innovation-friendly countries are – as do fellow Nordic nations Finland and Iceland. In INSEAD’s Global Innovation Index 2016, for instance, Sweden was ranked 2nd (beaten only by Switzerland), Finland 5th, Denmark 8th, Iceland 13th and Norway 22nd.
In Bloomberg’s most recent list of the world’s 50 most innovative economies, which uses slightly different criteria, Sweden is ranked 3rd overall, Finland 7th, Denmark 9th, Norway 14th and Iceland 28th. Nordic countries tend to score particularly well in terms of research and development (R&D) intensity and researcher concentration, while Norway gets the top score in the list for productivity.
These national traits are reflected in the region’s universities, many of which have a strong focus on research and innovation – including support for students to develop their own ideas.
At Finland’s University of Helsinki (in the global top 100 of the QS World University Rankings® 2016-2017), one example of this is the Helsinki Think Company, an initiative launched in collaboration with the city government. This dedicated innovation center aims to bring together students, academics and budding entrepreneurs, to fast-track the process of transforming good ideas into commercial enterprises.
Meanwhile, Carl-Fredrik Miles, deputy director for student affairs and international relations at Sweden’s University West, says support for research and innovation underlies the country’s higher education system. “Swedish universities have an open climate, with a strong focus on group work. I would say that the way we teach and make students responsible for their own results means they are more open to innovation.”
As Miles points out, this in turn adds to graduates’ employability: “The global job market values ambitious, innovative and perceptive team players.”
2. Some of the world’s best universities
More generally, these research and innovation strengths mean Scandinavian/Nordic countries are home to some of the world’s best universities. The QS World University Rankings 2016-2017 features a total of 27 Nordic universities – ten in Finland, eight in Sweden, five in Denmark and four in Norway – most of which are well within the global top 500.
These are admittedly much lower numbers than countries like the UK or Germany – not to mention the US. But that’s mainly because the Nordic countries have much smaller populations, and therefore fewer universities. In fact, the combined population of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland – about 26 million – is less than half that of the UK (around 65 million) and nowhere close to the US (about 319 million).
For those who want to study at one of the best universities in the region, the rankings may be a good starting point, but it’s important to look beyond them too. Some of the best-known Scandinavian universities are not actually listed in the overall rankings, because they are too specialized to meet the criteria for inclusion. Examples of this are Sweden’s Stockholm School of Economics and the Karolinska Institute (a medical university), both highly reputed worldwide in their respective fields.
Many Scandinavian universities offer a growing selection of opportunities to study in English. In Sweden, for example, there are now almost 100 English-taught programs at bachelor’s level, and over 900 at master’s level. Danish institutions offer more than 700 degrees taught in English, and Finish institutions more than 400.
3. The attractive Scandinavian lifestyle
Beyond the universities, there’s also the wider appeal of the Scandinavian lifestyle. These countries may not have the world’s most appealing climates, but they are known for their high quality of life, highly advanced social support systems, and leadership on issues ranging from gender equality to environmental policy. And of course in recent years, the Danish concept of "hygge" has been trending across the world.
Nordic capital cities frequently rank well in global quality of life indexes, such as Mercer’s Quality of Living Rankings – in the 2016 edition, Copenhagen came 9th, Stockholm 19th, and Helsinki and Oslo joint 30th. It should be noted that these cities are not on the same scale as much larger metropolises such as London or New York – so if you want to lose yourself among skyscrapers or in a tangled underground system, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. But Nordic cities generally pride themselves on combining city life with a pleasant, clean, relatively relaxed atmosphere.
US student Lucas Tilley, who completed a Master in Economics at Sweden’s Uppsala University, recalls falling in love with the country when he first visited. “I was enthralled by both the culture and the language. Things were similar enough to my own culture that I knew I wouldn't experience ‘culture shock’ when moving here, but there were also enough differences that I knew studying here would broaden my perspectives and expose me to new values and experiences.”
Lucas also mentions Uppsala’s proximity to “beautiful Swedish nature” – and natural beauty is another feature typically associated with the Nordic countries. Mountains, fjords, islands, forests – there’s lots to explore, and lots of outdoor pursuits on offer. (Just remember the further north, the colder it’s likely to be, and the more extreme the variation in daylight hours.)
4. The possibility of a free degree
While the Nordic countries do tend to have relatively high living costs, this is to a large extent balanced out by low tuition fees – you mayeven get a free degree! However, note that this is no longer as common as in previous years, with most Nordic nations now charging fees for at least some groups of students.
In Denmark, tuition remains free for all EU/EEA students and for students on exchange programs. International students from further afield can expect to pay €6,000-16,000 (~US$6,400-17,000) per year.
In Finland, there are no fees for citizens of EU/EEA countries, PhD students, or programs taught in Finnish or Swedish. Non-EU/EEA students are now required to pay fees for English-taught bachelor’s and master’s programs. These vary depending on the program, ranging from €4,000 to €20,000.
Public universities in Norway are still free for students of all nationalities, at all study levels. There’s just a very small fee of NOK300-600 (~US$35-70) per semester. Private universities in Norway do charge fees, but these are relatively low, and are the same for both local and international students. Some public universities also charge fees for a small number of specialized courses, usually at master’s level.
In Sweden, there are no fees for students from within the EU/EEA and other Nordic countries. PhD programs are also tuition-free. Students from elsewhere in the world can expect to pay SEK80,000-140,000 (~US$9,000-16,000) per year for most bachelor’s and master’s programs. However, certain subjects, such as medicine, may come with a higher rate.
Some scholarships are also available for international students at Scandinavian universities, including both government initiatives and university-specific awards.
This article was originally published in August 2013. It was updated in January 2017.
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