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The basics
Sweden: Applying to University - Must read

Understanding the Swedish higher education system

Our overview of the Higher Education System in Sweden for international students

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It may be idyllic, cold and tucked away near the world’s uppermost tip, but Sweden’s highly-regarded and innovative academic culture makes the nation a keenly sought out study destination. Operating via a unique system of cycles and credit points, higher education programmes in Sweden can be quite flexible and offer students the chance to undertake study across a range of subjects, qualification types and modes of study. Let our breakdown of how it all works help get you on your way to studying abroad in Sweden.


Types of institution

All types of higher education institutions in Sweden are beneath the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, except the University of Agricultural Sciences, which falls beneath that of the Ministry of Agriculture. Qualifications from Swedish bodies are divided into three cycles based on the level of study offered, each with different credit requirements. Sweden works on a credit system compatible with the ECTS credit system, in which a normal, 40-week academic year corresponds to 60 credits at a given study level.


There are also three separate categories of qualification based on study area:general, fine and applied performing arts, and professional. Awards in each category are available across all three cycles. There are 51 universities and university colleges in Sweden. All qualifications given by higher education institutions recognized by the government have equal official value.


Professional, non-degree qualifications are given in studies such as Engineering, Health Care, Agriculture, Law and Education, across first and second cycles. These study programmes may vary in length depending on specific course content, and so may stretch over two cycles based on how many credits they require.


Universitet (University)

Swedish universities offer programmes across all three cycles, awarding qualifications at undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral levels.  Entry to programmes in each study cycle requires a qualification or proven equivalence of knowledge to the credit level of the cycle preceding it.


Högskola (University College)

Self-governed and independent, university colleges will generally have the right to award undergraduate qualifications (first and second cycles), but must apply to relevant bodies in order to be able to award those on postgraduate at doctoral levels (third cycle). Programmes offered are typically vocationally or professionally oriented.


The different cycles

Cycles are comparable to distinctions between levels of study in other countries: for example, undergraduate programmes (including Bachelor degrees) in the UK would correspond to those on cycle one, Masters to cycle two and Doctorate programmes to cycle three.


First Cycle

Awards in the first and second cycles are course-based programmes, and are comparable to Bachelor Degree and some Higher Diploma programmes in the UK. Students are able to group different combinations of courses together in order to make up a quota of credits. Swedish Bachelor degrees (‘Kandidatexamen’) and Higher Education Diplomas (‘Högskolexamen’) are awarded at this level, requiring 120 credits and 180 credits respectively for completion. For Bachelor’s study, at least 90 credits, including an independent project task worth 15 credits, need to be completed within your main area of study within your general field, often called a ‘major.’


Second Cycle

Second Cycle programmes are awarded as either ‘Magisterexamen’ or ‘Masterexamen’ Masters Degrees, each differing in their credit requirements. Qualifications in this cycle are comparable to one or two year Masters programmes in the UK. Magisterexamen students will need to complete 60 credits (equivalent to one year of full-time study), 30 of which are in a field of specialisation within the larger field of study, whilst Masterexamen students will need to complete 120 credits, with at least 60 in their major field of study.


Third Cycle

Third cycle programmes are comparable to Doctorate and PhD programmes in the UK. Subjects within Swedish programmes on this level are defined individually within each institution, details of which are outlined in a general study plan that states the principal organisation of a particular student’s subjects, their admission requirements and any other necessary stipulations of their study programme.


Two qualifications are awarded on this level: Degree of Licentiate (‘Licentiatexamen’) and Degree of Doctor (‘Doktorsexamen’). A Licentiate Degree requires 120 credits, of which 60 are dedicated to a thesis component. A Degree of Doctor takes 240 credits, with at least 120 of them allocated to an independent thesis study.


Academic culture

Swedish academic culture is quite unique and is based on a teaching model that favours learning via recognition.  Professors rely on the commitment of students in taking responsibility for their own learning and development, with teaching styles geared towards enabling critical analysis of course content that draws on ‘real-world’ case studies and practical information. Setting group work is also common practice, intended to force students to draw on what they’ve learned independently to facilitate a joint, student-led investigation.


Students are always required to attend lectures, and whilst teaching and student attitudes towards learning are taken very seriously there is often an informal relationship between teachers and students.  Swedish culture is egalitarian in nature, and avoids language and mannerisms considered boastful or arrogant. Students participating in discussion should be confident without being overpowering, and always substantiate their argument with an open mind. Swedish thinking values innovation and new ideas, and students are encouraged to venture suggestions for new modes of thought and critical approaches to course content.


Different Swedish institutions have different specialities, and so may focus on learning styles more relevant to a particular mode or style of study. For example, Lund University is considered the nation’s strongest research university, and so specifically focuses on teaching via an interdisciplinary approach to best equip students with critical skills to best undertake research independently.


Now that you know all about the Swedish cycle system, why not start browsing courses in Sweden now and plan your study abroad adventure?


Useful links:

Tuition fees in Sweden

Student living costs in Sweden