Matilda Ernkrans is a Social Democrat, and Sweden's Minister for Higher Education and Research since 2019Kristian Pohl

Plastered across headlines all over the world and unable to escape international attention, Sweden has been 2020’s unexpected media star, for better or for worse.

With its ‘lighter touch’ approach standing out from most other European countries and the US, Sweden drew praise and criticism in equal measure for its initial pandemic response.

“My ambition is to keep education at universities going as long as we can”

But like everywhere, this year was tough on Swedish university students too. After shutting their doors in March, universities partially re-opened in autumn, allowing some first year students to attend in person to get to know their campuses, alongside students with no-remote alternatives such as those doing laboratory work.

Even though distance learning now makes up the largest share of university teaching, Sweden’s Minister for Higher Education and Research Matilda Ernkrans is determined not to repeat the full campus shut-downs which took place in Spring.

“My ambition is to keep education at universities going as long as we can,” she stresses, “because it’s important students get their education and that we keep on educating nurses, police, doctors, engineers, because we need them in society and we need them to fight the pandemic as well.”

But last month, Ernkrans told Radio Sweden students should to “focus on their education not partying” after more than 200 people tested positive for Covid-19 following large student parties.

“Of course it’s tough for them to reduce their social gatherings,” she tells Varsity, “but they need to do that because that’s what we need to keep our universities and education going.”

“Younger people in general feel more immortal than older groups”

“Younger people in general feel more immortal than older groups,” she adds, stressing the “vast majority” have abided by restrictions, and “it is extremely important that they continue to do so [since] the situation in Sweden is worrying.”

The small Northern European country’s more voluntarist approach meant bars, restaurants, shopping malls and primary schools stayed open in Spring - with no legal lockdown in sight.

“I am quite proud of the Swedish decision to keep elementary schools open,” says Ernkrans. “I think that it’s good for the children and good for society”.

“We don’t have any regulations stating that you have to wear a face mask,” she adds, “but we have other strict regulations that people need to follow and actually did in Spring.”

But in fact, while some pundits held Sweden up as an example of how to balance economic considerations with pandemic-related restrictions, the government was constitutionally prohibited from enforcing legal lockdowns which would violate the right to free movement. But mobile phone data suggests citizens showed similar levels of compliance with work-from-home and travel recommendations to other European countries, where lockdowns were compulsory.


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“I must say it’s not, it’s not at all sort of the same society in Sweden as normal. It’s a very, very different society,” insists Ernkrans.

But with over 6,400 deaths and counting, the second wave has hit the country hard. Hospitalisations are sharply on the rise, and its 14-day cumulative number of cases of 616 per 100,000 people is above even that of France and Spain, some of Europe’s worst affected states.

On Sunday night, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven urged Swedes to comply with restrictions in a rare national address, which follows new rules announced limiting gatherings from 50 to 8 people.

But despite all the pandemic-related interruptions, Ernkrans insists this hasn’t prevented her from working towards fulfilling her key policy ambitions for the Ministry since she took office last year.

“Being a social democrat, it’s important for me to make sure higher education is available for the many, not only for those whose parents have been in academia,” she says, arguing this a “tough” issue to resolve given its “deep structural roots” in Swedish society.

She argues the pandemic will inevitably lead to a more precarious job market for graduates but has highlighted the need for healthcare workers, making increasing access to higher education even more crucial now.

“If we can get people to actually educate themselves ... we can build a stronger society after the pandemic than we had before”

“If we can get people to actually educate themselves through this crisis,” says Ernkrans, “we hopefully can build a stronger society after the pandemic than we had before”.

She is also continuing work on her policies to bolster the protection of free speech and reduce harassment at universities.

“Free speech and research-based knowledge is more important than ever to tackle the pandemic, but also to meet our societal challenges”.

Just like the UK, mental health is a critical issue facing universities in Sweden. A study published last year found rates of depression among young Swedes are the highest among all EU Member States, with 41% of 18-24 year olds ‘at risk’. Ernkrans says this is something the Ministry has been paying attention to this year.

“Distance learning is something that can affect your mental health, of course, so we have actually put a little bit more money into student health facilities, which are present on all campuses, so they can better [support] the students,” she says, “and into student organisations so they can work [more closely with] students.”

“We have done a little bit, but I think we will have to stay focused on this through the pandemic and do even more”.

A tough job market is a concern for Swedish graduates too, especially as unemployment levels soar to 10% by the start of 2021, according to some estimates. Ernkrans says the Ministry has poured funds into new up-skilling courses this summer as an alternative for young people unable to find a job.

“We’re also building more opportunities for master’s degrees,” she says. “This is a way to sort of hibernate during the crisis and [then] hopefully you’re stronger when we’re out of this. But on the other hand courses and education can give you a chance to get another job on the labour market.”

“I think that at universities, it will be difficult and not even desirable to go back to how we did it before”

When asked whether countries should reconsider tuition fees during the pandemic - a topic that has recently stirred controversy in the UK - Ernkrans says it is “difficult to compare” countries due to their “different preconditions”.

But she admits Sweden, with its “very robust student financial system”, plans to keep its tuition free. The Ministry has also introduced ways to “pause” or pay less in repayments if graduates’ expected income levels end up being lower due to the pandemic.

Sweden also gives out numerous generous grants to students. Ernkrans stresses that if illness or other coronavirus-related disruptions hinder students’ work, they “don’t have to be worried” about not receiving their grants this year.

Ultimately, she says, student loans in Sweden are designed based on “possibility” of repayment, not to be “a burden”.

As for her thoughts on whether the pandemic will change anything for good in Swedish higher education, Ernkrans argues new steps such as accelerated digitalisation of education represent “a step towards something new”.

“I think that at universities, as in society at large, it will be difficult and not even desirable to go back to how we did things before”.

Sweden gave more people the opportunity to study at university this year in professions such as medicine, nursing and teaching. “Hopefully,” quips Ernkrans “this will in a few years time have a positive effect on our welfare.