There are few nicer places in the world than Scandinavia, whether it be for living, visiting or getting yourself educated. Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark are consistently ranked the countries with the highest standard of living in the world, and are famed for their excellent government services of every kind, paid for by hefty tax rates.
Did you know that Swedes, Finns, Danes and Norwegians are actually paid by the government to go to university, receiving about £200 per week in loans and grants?
For foreigners, the picture is almost as rosy. Although Sweden and Denmark recently introduced tuition fees for non-EU international students (and suffered a massive drop in applications as a consequence), Brits are still entitled to education in any Scandinavian country completely free of charge.
Confronted with such an opportunity, the cynic would immediately claim that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and point out that the costs of living in the region are famously excessive. Plus, there is no financial aid to cover such costs (there are a few scholarships knocking about in some countries/institutions, but not many).
While it is true these countries aren’t cheap (and the poor value of the pound at time of writing really doesn’t help), their legendary prices are not necessarily as terrifying as some rumours suggest. Sweden is not a lot more expensive than living in London, and neither are many parts of Denmark and Finland.
Norway, it is true, is ludicrously expensive, as are cities like Copenhagen and Helsinki, but living in them shouldn’t cost anything like the UK’s £9000 tuition fees.
And if you’re good at living on the cheap, then things won’t get too pricy.
Brits who study in Scandinavia will tell you that any extra cost that does accrue is worth paying. It’s common for those who come on an exchange program to return again to take a masters course (of which there are hundreds taught in English) once they’ve experienced what’s on offer.
Scandinavia offers many things, not least high-quality, uncomplicated, flexible education in a country with excellent career prospects and where everyone speaks English. And most of all, it’s fun.
There is no more defining quality of the education here than fun. Scandinavians have a flair for enjoying themselves that far outstrips the British penchant for awkward tea parties and binge-drinking excesses.
They tend to make good friends, throw unforgettable parties (frequently listed by students as the best thing about going to uni here) and also know how to unwind better than any of their Northern European counterparts.
Scandinavians do not see any need to rush or overly pressurise their educational experience, certainly not at the cost of socialising. Talk to Scandinavians for a period of time and you find that they use a specific English word far more often than English people do – the word “cosy”.
While frequent reference to “cosy time” may sound Borat-esque to the unprepared Brit, it’s really about hanging out in parks in summer time (alcohol outdoors in public is perfectly allowable, and rarely abused), or lighting candles and inviting over your friends for some food in the winter. (Winters are of course harsh in ScandinaviaIt says something, therefore, that they cause surprisingly few complaints. The locals are too experienced at dealing with them to let them get in the way).
Such cosiness has a flip side. Although they make good friends, Scandinavians are not necessarily the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. Like Brits, the stereotyped Scandinavian is personally reserved, not immediately outgoing and sometimes a bit shy – the antithesis of the American extrovert who is criticised as shallow or fake. Anything but superficial, these guys are hard to get to know, but once you penetrate the icy exterior, you’ll never want to turn back – like the country itself.
Like all stereotypes, this picture is a tad extreme, but we do hear that many international students find it quite difficult to integrate. As ever, the problem is worst among exchange students, who stick to themselves; the non-exchange Brits we talked to seemed to be very happy with their social lives. In Scandinavia, even more than elsewhere, it’s important to throw yourself into the local community from day one.
Everyone speaks English, so communication won’t be difficult, but they will revert to one of their indecipherable languages if they don’t notice or forget foreigners are around – make sure they are aware of your pathetic mono-lingualism and they’ll always be happy to switch back to English. Correcting their little mistakes can be quite fun, actually.
One great aspect of Scandinavian education is its flexibility. It’s easy to chop and change the subjects you pursue and the kind of institution at which you pursue them. Many students take a gap year or two before getting started, and may take further breaks throughout their studies, which last five years minimum.
It’s also common to abandon one university after a year or two and switch to another - or even switch to a different kind of educational establishment, such a “folk school” or vocational college.
This flexibility allows students to get a richer life-experience in many cases than just a plain old three-year stint at a uni. Many combine education with employment or travels. There are loads of opportunities for part-time work catering to such students (remember, with a high cost of living comes high wages), and it’s also easy to take on volunteer work, either with a non-profit organisation or within the university. Scandinavians have a strong social conscience, and volunteering is much more popular there than it is in the UK.
The Scandinavian countries were among those that until recently didn’t have a huge distinction between the first three years of education (what’s now called the Bachelor’s degree) and the final two years (master’s degree), and they have only recently embraced such terms with the adoption of the Bologna Process. This means that masters students remain very much part of campus life, and interact a lot more with undergrads than they do in the UK.
Though Scandinavia bears some similarities with Germany, it differs in being much less bureaucratic. University administrations are helpful and straightforward. In fact, almost all public services here are helpful, a reflection of these countries’ generally stress- and argument-free style of living.
For non-Scandinavian EU students, administrative formalities merely involve registering at the migration office and the tax agency, and if you stay for over a year then you’ll get a Swedish personal number (not the same as citizenship), which entitles you to cheap healthcare and so forth.
As well as the normal gamut of introductory weekends and welcome parties for international students, many universities, including those reviewed below, run excellent mentor schemes, whereby international students are teamed up with locals and shown the ropes, or at least a good time around town. Those who have participated in these schemes give glowing reports.
For lots of useful information, and a fair chunk of advertising hyperbole, you can visit the relevant websites for each country: