The Case of Sweden-
Mikael Börjesson, Donald Broady
Dans L'Année sociologique 2016/1 (Vol. 66), pages 115 à 146

Introduction

1In most parts of the world there are well-defined mechanisms for elite education. [1][1]This article is written within the context of the research… Most obvious in many Western countries is the existence of a sector of highly selective institutions. In the United States and Great Britain most prestigious schools and universities are private and charge high tuition fees, while in France the corresponding grands lycées and grandes écoles most often are state-owned and lay claim to select students on a predominantly meritocratic basis. What these kinds of institutions have in common is that they command a strong concentration of various species of capital, be it scholarly, economic, cultural or social.

Another visible mechanism is the division into parallel subsystems, which begin to separate pupils at an early age into socially differentiated tracks, for example the traditional German Bildungswege. Yet another easily recognisable device within elite education systems are the special selection processes – for example, through interviews, or the French concours – that take into account not only former school achievements but also desirable personality features, language skills and other capacities predominantly found among students in possession of considerable amounts of inherited cultural and social assets. [2][2]In France this applies foremost to the private grandes écoles,…

2Sweden represents an unusual case because such obvious mechanisms are more or less absent. Very few schools or universities occupy – in their entirety – generally recognised elevated positions. Almost all higher education institutions are state-owned. Grades from lower levels of the system are, nearly everywhere (among the exceptions are formations in art, music, sports), the only instrument used in the selection of students to upper secondary and to higher education. Tuition fees are not allowed in primary or secondary schools (whether private or not), nor (except for non-European students) at university level.

3Furthermore, compared to most other countries the organisation of the system is much more homogenous, which means that few socially determined divisions can be easily discerned. Since 1977 nearly all post-secondary education has been incorporated into högskolan that offers everything from traditional university studies to vocational training. During the 1970s the upper secondary level also underwent homogenisation: the previous division between neatly separated tracks that recruited children from or targeted different social classes was abolished giving way to one single institution, gymnasieskolan, which from the early 1990s until recently gave, at least formally, all graduates access to higher education.

In the early 1970s the eight-year unified comprehensive schooling for all children, grundskolan, had already been implemented everywhere in Sweden. That meant the end of the former division between folkskolan for the poor and läroverket for the more educated or affluent classes. A political explanation of this organisational homogeneity was the egalitarian discourse that prevailed during the long period of social democratic hegemony. Until recently, not even right wing spokespersons allowed themselves to call for or even acknowledge the existence of such a thing as elite education.

4In this article we propose some answers to the intriguing question of how elite education – meaning both the formation of the offspring of past and present elites as well as the formation of future elites – has operated in a system lacking clear-cut institutional vehicles for the reproduction and production of elites. We also ask whether there is a movement towards a more overtly differentiated system.

5The last question is natural since on an organisational and policy level the equity ideal has during recent decades been increasingly challenged by new models and goals. In a first wave, in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, efforts to increase and support marketisation and decentralisation were launched at all levels of the educational system. The state decentralised responsibility for the compulsory school and the upper secondary school to the municipalities. A deregulation facilitated the establishment of independent but state-funded schools that were allowed to be for-profit – today in many cases owned by venture capitalists.

A new voucher system gave the pupils or parents free choice of schools. For each pupil enrolled at the school, the owner receives money directly from the state budget. In higher education, the institutions were given more liberty to organise their educational offerings, and financial support from the government to the institutions became more closely related to the choices of the students and their performance. In short, the market was made the organisational principle, and the freedom of individual choice became a prominent objective. Equality disappeared from the political vocabulary.

6In a second wave, from the beginning of the 2000s and onward, internationalisation and excellence have been the guiding principles. With the higher education reform in 2007, the whole system was adopted to the Bologna model and its 3+2 year degree system with the rationale of increasing international mobility and strengthening Sweden’s position in the global knowledge economy competition. A series of initiatives have also been launched to promote excellence in the educational system. One such initiative has been to fund larger “centres of excellence” research milieus, another to indicate “strategic” research areas eligible for substantial financial support, a third to support recruitment of excellent international scholars to Swedish institutions.

In addition, the “autonomy” reform in 2010 – which granted the boards of higher education institutions more freedom to decide on their organisational structure and the positions for teaching and research – was part of the evolution of a less unified system with more institutional diversity. Furthermore, multiple attempts have been made to diversify the funding of higher education institutions according to different performance indicators and measures of quality.

7These trends are well known from other Western countries. What we have witnessed in Sweden is, thus, the “mainstreaming” of a hitherto rather exceptional educational system. Below we will investigate both the transformations within the system and its – in fact surprisingly stable – general structure.

The Swedish educational system and its elitist dynamics

The space of higher education and the subspace of elite education

8In a homogenous system such as Sweden’s, up until recently the elites – or, in another theoretical perspective, primarily the cultural fractions of the upper middle and upper class – had to exercise control not over a limited number of exclusive institutions but over the entire higher education system. This is a necessity since the social and meritocratic divide operates within, rather than between, institutions.

9To account for this social fact we have chosen to define the space of elite higher education simply as the uppermost compartments of the entire higher education space. To be more precise, elite higher education is the subspace (represented by a trapezoid in Figure 1) characterised by the highest density of cultural capital as well as other species of capital – economic, juridical, administrative, political, scientific, artistic, etc. – that constitutes the Swedish field of power.

10The space of Swedish higher education is constructed by the use of correspondence analysis (CA) (Le Roux, Rouanet, 2004, pp. 23-74). On the basis of a dataset of the total population (n = 264,000) of students (active half time or more) in higher education in the autumn of 2006, a large table has been extracted with the more than 600 educational programmes and courses at specific educational institutions as rows (minimum 100 students by unit) and the 64 categories of students’ social origin, which separates male and female students (i.e., sons of nurses, daughters of lawyers) as the columns. The structure of the space is defined by the proportion of students in each of the categories that are enrolled at the different educational institutions and programmes.

Figure 1. The Swedish space of higher education and the subspace of elite education, autumn 2006. Correspondence Analysis, the plane of axes 1 and 2. 32 categories of social origin, sexes separated.

Data source: Statistics Sweden.
Active variables:
 Social origin. S = sons; D = daughters.
• Educational programmes/courses offered by higher education institution.
The sizes of the triangles and circles are proportional to the number of students in a particular category.

11As shown in Figure 1, the entire space of higher education exhibits a triangular shape. Let us first consider the distribution of social origin and gender. At the top of the triangle, where the gender differentiation is not very pronounced, we find the students who possess large amounts of both inherited and acquired cultural and educational capital. At the wide base at the bottom, the gender differences are remarkable with a concentration of male students from the working class to the right and of women from the same class to the lower left.

12Regarding the distribution of institutions the traditional universities of Uppsala and Lund, the larger universities of Stockholm and Gothenburg, and some reputable specialised institutions such as the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), the Stockholm School of Economics and the Royal Institute of Art are found at the top of the space, where there is a concentration of students with vast amounts of highly recognised resources of various kind. In contrast, the recently established universities and regional university colleges, characterised by a limited and less prestigious educational offering, more modest resources for research and the lack of “tradition,” are situated in the lower region of the space, populated by students originating from lower social classes. Most of these colleges only became higher education institutions after 1977.

13Finally, considering the distribution of study programmes, longer programmes in, for example, medicine, law and political science are positioned in the upper compartments of the space. Here, there are many applicants per position. Only those with very high grades from the upper secondary level or eminent results in the national aptitude test are admitted. At the base lie programmes for the training of preschool and primary school teachers, and health and social care workers. The gender binary along this first axis is due to differences in the choice of study domain. Shorter technology programmes comprise the “male” pole (lower right), and training in teaching, nursing, and social care the “female” pole (lower left). Here the scholastic thresholds for admission are generally very low.

14Thus, social differentiation is closely related to the meritocratic, whereby those endowed with the highest levels of inherited and acquired educational capital tend to make the most distinguished educational investments. However, for analytical reasons we believe that it is important to separate social and meritocratic resources.

How to define elite education and elites?

15It seems necessary to differentiate between at least two definitions of “elite education.” [3][3]For the sake of simplicity we refrain in this article from…

16According to a meritocratic definition, elite education takes place in institutions or programmes characterised by highly selective recruitment of students based on scholastic merit. Typically, only those with the highest grades from underlying levels of the educational system are admitted. Merits other than scholarly achievements are valid only in special cases, for example when applying to institutions specialising in art or sports.

17The most significant effect of meritocratic selection is probably its impact on the uniformity of scholastic goals. In meritocratic elite institutions, high ambitions, excellent performance and sustained effort are considered highly desirable and frequently become the norm due to the combined influences of staff and pressure from peers.

18A second definition of elite education is a social one. In this perspective, elite schools or programmes are considered those that contribute to the intra-generational reproduction of the current dominant groups by educating and training their offspring.

19When discussing dominant groups, it is important however to differentiate between the reproduction of elites and of the upper class (Baltzell, 1995 [1958], pp. 6-7). By “elites,” we simply mean groups that occupy dominant (formal and informal) positions within the overall field of power or within different fields such as the economic, the political, the academic or the artistic field. An individual belongs to the elite based on his or her individual position and merit. For elite groups it is crucial to reproduce and strengthen their specific species of capital (political capital within the political elite, and so on). The upper class, by contrast, is defined in relation to the social space, i.e. the class structure, and has no need to reproduce a certain species of capital (political, artistic, etc.) but simply to retain or strengthen a dominant position within the social space. [4][4]For the upper class, the primary entity is not the individual…

20In Western societies, the most important division within the upper or upper middle class tends to be the one that separates those who are wealthier in terms of economic capital (the financial and industrial bourgeoisie) from those who are relatively more dependent on cultural and educational capital for their position and reproduction (scholars, artists, intellectuals, etc.). Groups in the middle (senior civil servants, engineers, professionals such as lawyers and physicians) are characterised by a more balanced distribution of resources. (Bourdieu, 1979, pp. 139-144) This division found in France forty years ago is also applicable to Swedish society as shown by Andreas Melldahl and Mikael Börjesson (2015) for the whole population in 1990 and by Andreas Melldahl (2015) for those aged 40 in the same year.

21A homologous division between the trajectories of the children from families rich in cultural capital and those rich in economic capital was visible within the educational system. Such divisions were, though, found rather within than between institutions. The exceptions, for example clear-cut institutions for the economic elite, are very few, among which the best known are a couple of boarding schools that recruit children from affluent families and from the nobility (Sandgren, 2015). For centuries the nobility have also educated their offspring through hiring tutors and arranging educational travel, such as the grand tour in Europe.

Over time, however, the nobility have become more dependent on the educational system to reproduce their social position. The royal family is no exception and has begun to make more frequent, albeit not particularly ambitious, use of the elite segment of the educational system for educating its younger members. In the eyes of the public, the enrolment of a royal prince or princess is perhaps the most conspicuous sign of a posh elite school.

22These two definitions of elite education are intertwined. Thus, programmes that are highly selective in terms of scholastic merit tend to recruit pupils or students from families belonging to social elites and/or the upper class. For analytical purposes, though, it is useful to maintain the distinction between elite education in the meritocratic sense and in the social sense, as will be illustrated in the following.

Social and meritocratic elite higher education

23To sum up: the analysis of the space of higher education (Figure 1 above) gave a rough characterisation of Swedish elite higher education as the subspace with the highest density of cultural capital (both acquired and inherited) as well as a strong concentration of other species of capital that constitute the Swedish field of power. This subspace of elite higher education is dominated by a few presti­gious longer professional programmes, especially in medicine and engineering, located within a very narrow range of institutions, predominantly at the oldest universities and specialised professional universities, for example, in medicine and engineering, mostly situated in Stockholm and the surrounding region. To enable analyses that are more precise in the previous section we proposed two definitions of elite education, the social and the meritocratic, which we will now apply in an analysis of the recruitment profile of all higher education study programmes and courses with more than 100 enrolled students in the autumn of 2006.

24The total number of such programmes and courses amounted to 759. Among those, we singled out social elite recruitment of students by reducing the dataset using two variable values: upper middle to upper class social origins and/or highly educated parents. We defined meritocratic elite recruitment by ranking values of two additional variables related to the students’ educational capital: grades from upper secondary school and/or results on the Swedish Scholastic Aptitude Test (SweSAT). We then selected 56 programmes and courses (listed in Table 1 in the Appendix) that ranked among the top 30 according to one or more of these four variables.

Of these 56 elite programmes and courses, 22 were situated in the Stockholm–Uppsala region. In terms of the distribution between the institutions, 32 programmes (or courses) were found at the traditional old universities in Uppsala and Lund, 14 at newer specialised (in medicine, engineering, economics) universities, 9 at the two newer large universities in Stockholm and Gothenburg, recognised as universities in the twentieth century, and only 1 at a recently established medium-sized university, formerly a university college. Furthermore, there were 38 long professional programmes. There was a clear dominance of engineering (22) and social sciences including law, political science and psychology (17).

Medicine was overrepresented as well (9), while the humanities (5), natural sciences [5][5]Including veterinary science. (2) and other faculties [6][6]Two programmes in law are included in the social sciences.… (0) were under­represented compared to their share of the total student population. Measured in this way, the most distinct elite profiles are found within a handful of professional programmes, namely those in medicine, psychology, and engineering (especially in industrial economics, physics, and architecture).

25Our four indicator variables can be used to further clarify the differences within the elite segment of programmes and courses. The most exclusive group is formed by the ten programmes that rank in the top 30 on all four variables. In this top-ten group no less than six positions are occupied by programmes in medicine at different universities. In fact, these constitute all such programmes in Sweden, which further underlines how medicine is the major elite programme in Sweden. This group also includes the economic programme at the Stockholm School of Economics, the engineering programme in physics at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology and at Chalmers in Göteborg, as well as the political science programme at Uppsala University.

It is noteworthy that while business studies is one of the most popular areas in Swedish higher education, the programme at the Stockholm School of Economics stands out as the undisputed pinnacle within a vast domain of not very highly-ranked institutions. Among engineering programmes at the Royal Institute of Technology and Chalmers, the ones in physics and in industrial economics rise above the rest. The former is the most general and theoretical, with a strong emphasis on mathematics, the latter prepares for dominant positions within the economic field.

26Our analysis of the recruitment profiles of different programmes illustrates that although our two main elite criteria – the social and the meritocratic – overlap they do not necessarily coincide. Programmes in medicine and some engineering programmes stand out because of their large share of students from affluent, and especially from highly educated, families. When meritocratic criteria were applied, there was greater dispersal of top achievers among different study programmes. There were also differences between our two indicators – grades from upper secondary and results on the SweSAT – of meritocratic assets.

The highest school grades were found among students in medicine as well as in the prestigious engineering programmes in industrial economics and physics, while there were larger proportions of students with high scores on the SweSAT in social science programmes, especially psychology. The differences were less marked between the two indicators of elite social origin, that is between the students with social origins in the upper middle or upper class on the one hand and highly educated parents on the other.

The expansion of higher education and its effects

The expansion and the elites

27So far, we have considered the space of higher education at a certain point in time, the year of 2006. Although the general structure has remained remarkably stable for decades, as shown in other analyses, [7][7]Cf. Broady, Palme, 1992, and later studies on the spaces of… there have been transformations among which the most dramatic – just as in other countries – is the tremendous growth in the numbers of students. [8][8]This section summarises results presented in Börjesson et al.,…

28The number of registered students increased from 17,000 in 1950 to 431,000 in 2011 – a 2,500 per cent increase (see Figure 2). However, this rise has not been continuous. Two major phases of rapid expansion can be identified, in the 1960s and in the 1990s, driven by different logics. The 1960s expansion resulted mainly from the extensive growth of the youth population in combination with a comprehensive educational policy and the introduction of favourable study grants and loans to all students, while the 1990s expansion coincided with a decline in the youth population, an economic recession and a political strategy to utilise higher education as a means to reduce rising unemployment rates.

29Expansion can be measured by the share of an age cohort entering higher education (Melldahl, 2015, p. 59). This share increased steadily over the period from the 1940s to 1970s (from just above 5 per cent for those born in the 1920s to well over 25 per cent for those born in the mid-1950s), followed by a stagnation during the 1980s (at just over 25 per cent among those born 1955-1965) and again a rapid increase in the 1990s (from 25 to over 40 per cent in only one decade for those born 1965-1975). One important aspect of the growth of higher education is the increasing number of female students during both phases of the expansion. The proportion of women exceeded the proportion of men in the late 1970s – partly as a result of the incorporation of preschool and primary teacher training colleges, nursing schools and other female- dominated programmes into the higher education system in 1977 – and has increased over time. We will return to this development below.

Figure 2. Number of Registered Students in Swedish Higher Education, 1950-2011.

Sources: Figures for 1950 to 1976: Statistiska centralbyrån: Statistisk årsbok, the 1959-1979 editions; figures for 1977 to 2011, SCB www.scb.se.

30By considering the expansion in the 1990s in more detail, we are able to determine its bearing on the elite segment. First, the main growth in student numbers did not occur at traditional universities and prestigious specialised institutions but at university colle­ges. [9][9]The university colleges (högskolor) were established after the… While the universities accounted for more than 60 per cent of students in 1977, by 2009 this share had decreased to just above 40 per cent. During the same period, registered students at university colleges increased from 15 per cent to over 30 per cent of the total student population. This share amounts to well over 40 per cent if the university colleges granted university status during the period are included. In other words, the institutions and programmes that accommodated the most elite-oriented students shrank in relative size, and thus became even more exclusive.

31Second, the expansion was also driven by a restructuring of study programmes, characterised by the expansion of general programmes and courses, at the expense of professional programmes, which thereby became even more selective in relative terms.

32Third, at the level of the individual programmes, the most prestigious programmes grew more slowly than other programmes. This is, for instance, apparent in the most exclusive programmes in art (Börjesson, 2012). While the entire art education sector increased from 2,000 students by the mid-1980s to 16,000 by 2009, professional programmes remained generally stable at around 2,000 students from 1993 to 2006. One telling example of the stabi­lity of the most sought-after programmes is the five-year programme in fine arts at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, which had around 130-140 students during the 1990s and the 2000s, a level only slightly higher than the 120 students in the preceding decade. In fact, the selectiveness of this programme has grown since the 1980s as the number of applicants for the 25 positions offered annually has increased from 600 to 900.

At the opposite pole in the subfield of elite higher education space, where economics and business dominate, the Stockholm School of Economics has kept the size of its flagship programme in economics relatively constant at just over 1,000 students with a yearly intake of around 300 students from 1977 to 2009. During this period, registered students in business studies in Sweden have increased in number from 15,000 to 35,000, and in economics from 2,000 to 7,000. In other words, the relative exclusiveness of the Stockholm School of Economics has increased steadily with the expansion of higher education during the last two decades.

33To summarise, Swedish higher education underwent phases of rapid expansion in the 1960s and in the 1990s, accompanied by profound changes in its functions. The initial quantitative dominance of the universities has disappeared because of the creation and expansion of the university colleges. In addition, in the latest phase of expansion, from the 1990s onward, the most prestigious programmes have grown more slowly – or not at all – compared to the rest of the higher education system, thus attaining even more exclusive positions in the overall space of higher education.

Increasing numbers of women enrolled

34The reform in 1977, when almost all short post-secondary programmes were incorporated into the new unified higher education organisation högskolan, caused an instant shift in the gender balance. Overnight, the male majority in the student population was replaced by a female majority. This change was mainly due to a large increase of women in the less prestigious sector of the system, dominated by shorter vocational programmes in nursing, social care and education. The gender composition of the elite segment was not immediately affected by the reform and remained clearly male-dominated.

35This has now changed drastically. During the period from the reform in 1977 until 2008 all longer professional programmes in higher education saw their share of female students rise and the proportion of men fall (Lidegran et al., 2015). [10][10]This change at all levels of the educational system was at that… Many programmes, such as those in medicine, law and architecture, were transformed from clearly male-dominated in 1977 to female-dominated by 2008 with a sharp turning point in the early 1990s. A few programmes, such as those in psychology and pharmacy, which in 1977 already enrolled slightly more women than men, have over the years become more heavily dominated by women.

Exceptions were engineering programmes that were strongly male-dominated in 1977 – some with more than 90 per cent male students – and still at the end of the period clearly characterised by larger proportions of men, although most of them exhibited a slight increase in female students. This rise has been most pronounced in the least male-dominated engineering programme, that in chemistry, which since 1998 has actually maintained a constant female majority. Also the recruitment to the engineering programme in industrial economics has changed, albeit less sharply, from 90 per cent male students to 70 per cent.

36The inflow of women is apparent in almost all regions of the higher education space. That women massively entered the lower left quadrant of the space, where shorter vocational programmes in nursing, social care and education are positioned, is partly a result of demands for new qualifications in the sections of the labour market in which working class and lower middle class women predominate. Preschools now prefer to employ preschool teachers, trained at universities and university colleges, instead of childcare assistants with only upper secondary education, and nurses with at least three years of higher education studies are replacing nursing assistants. A similar upgrade is not as apparent for male working class and lower middle class jobs.

37The most noticeable changes in gender ratios have taken place within the elite segment of the higher education space. This transformation needs to be explained by other factors than changes in the labour market, since here women and men are oriented towards similar job positions. One probable factor is higher aspirations among women, aspirations that in turn beg for further explanation. In combination with their increasingly higher credentials from upper secondary school, as noted below, women have started to gradually overtake men in the most prestigious sector of the higher educational system.

Admission and grade inflation

38The expansion of the higher education system not only implies more students. In addition, the number of applicants to the most sought-after programmes has increased, implying sharpened competition for the elite positions within the system. This makes the question of admissions crucial in order to understand the entire space of Swedish higher education.

39As noted above, in the Swedish higher education system there are two main criteria for the selection: grades from upper secondary school and scores on the SweSAT. The latter selection criterion follows a strict normalisation procedure: points on the test are transformed into a score, with consistently similar proportions of indivi­duals in each category. By contrast, the former criterion, i.e. grades from upper secondary, has since 1997 followed another logic, that of an absolute and goal-related system. [11][11]The former grading system was relative, which meant that the… This implies that pupils are evaluated according to their level of performance.

If they are judged to have performed in accordance with the highest goals formulated in the syllabus they can, at least in theory, all receive the highest grade. Such a system allows for more fluctuation over time. There is also a clear tendency toward grade inflation, with a sharp increase in the number of students with higher grades. An obvious explanation for the generalisation of this process is the on-going marketisation of the system: delivering high grades has become a weapon used by schools in the competition to attract pupils and to please parents. [12][12]For macro analyses of the relation between grades and…

40The figure below shows grade inflation from 1997 to 2003. The mean grade point average increased from above 12.5 (out of 20.0) to 14.0 in only six years. Thereafter, it remained rather stable, at just above 14.0. Girls outperformed boys, an advantage that has remained stable at more than 1.0 over the years. Moreover, the gap between girls and boys actually increased in some years, reaching a difference of 1.4 points in 2008.

Figure 3. Mean grade point average in upper secondary school by gender, 1997-2008.

Source: Statistics from Statistics Sweden.

41Furthermore, grade inflation is more pronounced at the very top of the distribution, which is crucial for access to elite higher education institutions. From 1997 to 2003, the proportion of upper secondary pupils with an average grade of more than 19.0 increased from below 1 per cent to 5 per cent. During the same seven-year period, those who achieved the absolutely highest grade, 20.0, rose from 19 pupils to 340 pupils, a more than tenfold increase. This number continued to rise, reaching 699 pupils in 2008. [13][13]The increasing numbers of top-scorers can also be related to… This is why programmes in medicine introduced a lottery system to enable selection among the growing number of applicants with maximum grades.

42Another side of the huge inflation in grades is the altering conditions for different age cohorts. Since demand exceeds supply when it comes to elite higher education, there is constantly a large pool of applicants of different ages (in Swedish higher education, students tend to be older than in many other countries). The grade inflation in the late 1990s has in effect decreased the chances of those that graduated after the introduction of the new grade system compared to those that graduated in the old system in the middle of the 1990s.

The graduates of the late 1990s also fared worse than later cohorts, graduating in the beginning of the 2000s, who benefitted from rising grade averages. Such differences between cohorts were subject to severe criticism (Linder, 2011). What is at stake here is the basic legitimacy of the educational system. To be legitimate it must appear to be fair for all individuals, implying in this case that a “pass with distinction” must be acknowledged as having the same value across generations. (Skolverket, 2012)

43Currently, now that the grade inflation on a general level has evened out, a new problem has arisen: large differences between schools. Some schools grant more than half of their pupils higher grades than they are entitled to with regard to their pupils’ scores on the national tests. Many of this category of schools that are “gene­rous” with their grades are private and owned by venture capitalists. This has led to fierce criticism of the private school sector. Another consequence is that many pupils graduating from grade nine and their parents have to choose between applying either to a less demanding private upper secondary school that is known for its “boosted grades”, i.e. high grades in relation to actual performance, or to a school – often a well-established municipal one – with a more demanding teaching staff and a more academically-oriented study environment. Although applying to the latter kind of school involves the risk of lower grades, you might on the other hand expect the kind of environment and personal development cherished by culturally rich families and a solid scholarly foundation for higher studies.

44A further change in the upper section of the grade distribution is that girls have increasingly outperformed boys. During the period from 1987 to 1993, girls constituted 56–58 per cent of the students with grade point averages of over 18.99 in upper secondary school, while boys accounted for 42–44 per cent. Around 1995, girls had increased their share of this group to approximately 60 per cent, and from 2003 to over 65 per cent. This roughly implies that since 2003, two out of every three high achievers have been girls. In addition, because the proportion of students with the highest grades has increased over time, the absolute number of girls with high grades has increased further.

This phenomenon is reinforced by the fact that the proportion of female pupils has also grown within the category discussed below. Girls increased their share of pupils with a grade between 17.0 and 18.9, from below 60 per cent to over 65 per cent. This category also grew over time, from 5 per cent to almost 15 per cent. In the current discourse the predominant interpretation of this trend is not that it is a result of discrimination against boys; the reason is simply that girls perform better in school and are rewarded fairly for doing so (Hinnerich et al., 2010).

The impact of increasing national and international competition

The competition between study programmes

45Among the important transformations in Swedish elite education is the sharpened competition between study programmes.

46Many cases are found within the engineering sciences, where the fiercest struggles are fought at the level of programmes and fields of study rather than between institutions. During the last decade there has been a tremendous growth of computer sciences at the expense of more traditional areas such as mechanics and construction (Börjesson et al., 2014). In addition, industrial economics – commonly known as “the managing director programme” – has established itself as a sought-after programme in the intersection of economics and engineering, and thus as a competitor to both the Stockholm School of Economics and the traditional elite engineering programme, physics. We are obviously in the midst of an important shift away from pure engineering as a previously crucial road to elite positions within the Swedish field of economic power – while in many countries a background in law or economics has been the norm for top managers in the private sector, many Swedish companies have until recent decades been led by engineers (Jordansson, 2006, pp. 145-146).

47In the wake of the expansion of the system, pretenders have emerged in certain domains formerly dominated by one single school or programme. Engineering is one case where the prestigious Royal Institute of Technology and Chalmers have faced competition and had to cope with the fact that some of their programmes are no longer top-ranked. Another even clearer case is the subspace of education in fine arts. Until the 1990s, the Royal Institute of Art exercised total domination (Gustavsson et al., 2012), which thereafter has been challenged by formerly subordinate as well as newly established art schools, which in different ways try to position themselves in relation to both the leader and other arrivistes. Thus, the earlier rather one-dimensional educational space in fine arts has in only one decade turned into a veritably competition field.

Internationalisation of higher education

48Another crucial factor that challenges the hitherto normal elite reproduction mechanisms is the increasing importance of transnational investments. Such investments have always played a significant role for the higher echelons of society but now, after the dramatic rise in the numbers of Swedes studying abroad in the 1990s, a widened social recruitment base has emerged.

49This does not, however, imply any drastic changes in the relations and distances between social groups. There is substantial evidence that the groups well supplied with important species of capital are those that have gained most from this development. They possess the resources (educational, economic, cultural and linguistic) and the international experiences that truly enable them to compete on an international or global level. At the same time we notice intensified struggles where the relative value of international versus national investments is at stake. It is not always that the international trumps the national.

Quite the contrary, the formation of international elites presupposes a strong national basis and becomes a shaky project if investments at home are forsaken. As a rule, an elevated position within the national space – which goes for educational institutions as well as for individual students or professionals – is a requirement for advancement within international fields – for example in the quest to profit from illustrious international exchange programmes between elite sites of learning (Börjesson, 2005). In a rather peripheral country such as Sweden it seems probable that investments in both domestic and international arenas will become even more of a royal road to elite positions.

50A more complex landscape of elite higher education is taking shape as a result of both the increasing internationalisation – most visible and of greatest consequence in the formation of the elites – and the expansion of the domestic system that has given rise to more institutions and new programmes and fields of study. This landscape functions at two levels, one national and one international or global, and both are hierarchised and structured. At the global level we can (following Marginson, 2006) distinguish between a structure of nations, where Anglo-Saxon countries dominate, and a structure of universities manifested in global rankings that singles out American and British universities as world leaders. A university holds at the same time a position in the national and the global field. This implies that for American universities the differentiation between the national level and the global level tends to be compressed: the American hierarchy determines the global hierarchy.

In more peripheral countries, such as Sweden, a common opinion is that the growing internationalisation of higher education involves downplaying the national system in favour of transnational (EU or Bologna) or even global (USA) models. However, in order to understand the formation of elites we should take into account that this interplay between the national and the transnational or global might in fact strengthen the positions of highly ranked institutions within the domestic space, and thus the persistence of social dominance in the national structure. There is an urgent need for careful comparative research on the relations between the development on the national and the transnational or global level, and the interdependence of the two levels for the formation of national, transnational and global elites.

Increasing competition between social groups

51Much evidence suggests that the competition in the field of higher education in Sweden has become fiercer. We have witnessed a vast expansion of the system that has had several effects. The higher education landscape has become more complex: new institutions have been established, new programmes and fields of study have emerged, and new forms of instruction, such as on-line courses have appeared. The expansion has also fundamentally changed the value of higher education, from an exclusive good to something that is largely diffused, which means a continuous devaluation of grades and exams, for example for the individuals’ chances in the quest for social positions and economic returns (Melldahl 2015). The massive expansion of women in higher education has also led to a sharper competition for the most sought after programmes. In addition, the internationalisation of the higher education system has even further contributed to the differentiation and to raised stakes. All this has had important consequences for social classes, class fractions and groups in Sweden.

52Because of the homogeneity of the Swedish system since the 1970s, the upper middle class, the upper class and the elites have suffered from the scarcity of obvious routes for their own offspring and for new recruits, which has deprived them of the possibility – a natural one for equivalent groups in most countries – of simply entrusting the next generation of chosen ones to certain schools that serve as guarantors of a successful future. For their social reproduction they were themselves forced to provide their children (and new recruits from other social strata) with more or less individual trajectories through the system, as well as with extensive extra- curricular activities including everything from the cultivation of desirable manners and the company of acceptable friends to sojourns abroad and internships. Today because of the differentiation more of these needs are satisfied by certain powerful schools.

53For the higher social classes, general educational investments have become on the one hand necessary, and on the other hand not sufficient. Since the system is primarily meritocratic, grades are crucial for educational success. Upper middle class and upper class families invest heavily in providing the best opportunities for their children to acquire good grades. Once these good grades are obtained, they need to be used wisely. To cite a Swedish study on this very question,

54

It may seem paradoxical that those individuals who are able to choose virtually any programme they please – that is to say the children of the educational elite – turn out to make their selection from a very limited set of programmes, a pattern which holds true especially for the sons. […] This is not as paradoxical as it seems. It is only logical that the more concentrated the educational capital, the more attractive, and consequently more valuable, it is. (Lidegran, 2009, p. 249).

55Given the importance of educational capital for those most dependent upon it – that is the cultural fractions of the upper middle class and the upper class – some recent transformations mean altered conditions for the use of the educational system when it comes to social reproduction. The more recent grade inflation at the upper secondary level threatens the meritocratic mechanisms on which these groups have relied, since it both creates different conditions for different age cohorts and offers different chances that depend on the school attended and not solely on performance. In addition, the massive inflow of women has sharpened the competition for positions in elite programmes and institutions. The number of positions at the top of the educational hierarchy has not increased, as the most exclusive programmes have been careful to preserve their numerus clausus while the rest of the system expanded.

Their elite qualities have been augmented and the competition for access has sharpened, between men and women in general but also more precisely between men and women with specific social backgrounds. Another visible expression of the escalating competition at this high societal level is the increasingly common phenomenon of double degrees, or the addition of another elite programme to an already very selective programme. One of the most sought after combinations is a degree from both a prestigious engineering programme, such as physics or industrial economics, and a programme in economics at the Stockholm School of Economics.

56The transnational educational strategies of the various social groups follow a similar logic. Members of the social elite have the most to gain from internationalisation and, at the same time, have the largest share of resources necessary for successful education across national boundaries. These families possess cultural capital, economic resources and international experience. The parents have often worked abroad, or in some cases been educated abroad, master several foreign languages and have travelled widely. In other words, internationality is an integral part of the upbringing of these students. This has considerable significance. Higher studies overseas are regarded in these social groups as stages in a longer process, where timely choices determine later possibilities. Language is an important factor, especially when it comes to non-English speaking countries. Having spent holidays in France, studied French at secondary school and perhaps worked as an au pair in France, makes it much easier to gain entry to higher education in France.

However, the importance of economic resources should not be underestimated either. Although many economic impediments have been removed in Sweden as a result of the provision of general student aid also for studies abroad, other conditions prevail. In the United States, for example, tuition fees are high, which means that for those who study for a long period at an elite university, especially in big cities, the economic investment might amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Albeit very generous when compared to other countries, financial support for students from the Swedish state, which includes aid for studying abroad, would here be grossly inadequate, which leads to inequalities linked to family resources.

57The internationalisation of higher education not only concerns the upper social classes. In many respects, globalisation is about changing scales. What was previously reserved for a small elite has now become “democratised,” more widely available and accessible. When internationalisation moves into the national educational system, this might challenge the privileges of certain groups within the higher social classes and elites.

58However, these new possibilities do not fundamentally change the relations of dominance. When a system expands, those who already occupy a dominant position quickly realise the need to acquire more capital. A parallel can be drawn with the expansion of higher education in Sweden. The fact that new groups entered the university world did not necessarily mean the weakening of the dominance of the former elite groups. On the contrary, as new groups now have access to higher education, internationalisation provides a distinctive advantage and creates sharp internal differences within the Swedish system. Even a degree from Stockholm School of Economics is not sufficient. Overseas studies serve as an important complement. Because considerably more criteria are involved in the selection for studies abroad than for education at home, and because fewer are offered the opportunity, the acquisition of these sought- after exchange positions is a rather precise indicator of the (indivi­dual student’s as well as Swedish educational institution’s) possession of school-related and social capital.

Conclusion

59Of course, in spite of the scarcity of obvious elite education institutions in Sweden, there were ways for the elites, and the upper middle and upper classes, to educate their own offspring as well as new recruits from lower social strata. Their strategies have, though, been different from those of their counterparts in most countries. Because of the homogenisation of the Swedish educational system, which culminated in the 1970s, they could not rely on certain selective schools or universities. Instead, they were forced to hunt for more or less individual routes through the educational institutions – or outside the institutions, for example by a rigorous management of their children’s leisure time or by sending them abroad.

60This homogeneity began to dissolve from the early 1990s and onwards. The far-reaching deregulation and marketisation especially on the upper secondary level offered new opportunities for different higher class fractions and different elites to satisfy their specific reproduction needs. It is an open question whether this on-going diversification will cleave the system or not. In many respects the homogeneity persists. Tuition fees are not yet allowed at any level. All active students in higher education are granted means to cover their living expenses. The admission system is predominantly meritocratic: the access to upper secondary level is determined by school grades and to higher education by either grades from upper secondary level or the national aptitude test.

61Thus, for the higher classes and the elites there is no way around substantial investments in education. For several reasons the competition has sharpened. The elite character of most sought- after programmes has been reinforced since these have succeeded in limiting the number of students while the rest of the system has expanded. The massive inflow of women in all kinds of elite education has made the competition even harsher. The struggles are also influenced by the on-going internationalisation that calls for new kinds of investments.

62The changes in educational strategies have – together with new policies, reforms, and organisational measures that could be summed up under the label “marketisation” – caused certain dislocations. The natural science programme at the secondary level and the programme in medicine in higher education have become even more exclusive in their recruitment and represent even more than before Sweden’s prime examples of elite education.

63More generally, since the 1990s the existing dominating class fractions and elites have strengthened their positions and their dominance over the educational system. If we look at species of capital instead of social groups, the development might be described as one in which various kinds of recognised resources have been concentrated even more to a set of programmes and institutions that increasingly deserve the epithet “elite”. The Swedish educational system seems to be evolving into a more normal one.

Appendix

Table 1. Elite education in Swedish higher education, autumn 2006. Four criteria. Ranked by number of total top-30-positions and highest share of upper middle class origin.

Note: Grades indicate the percentage of students with upper secondary grades above 19.0 out of 20.0. NUAT (the National University Aptitude Test) indicates the percentage of students with a score of 1.8 to 2.0. Social class indicates the percentage of students with upper middle class or upper class background. Highly educated indicates the percentage of students with at least one parent carrying at least a three-year university degree.

Notes

  • [1]This article is written within the context of the research projects ‘Domestic Arenas of Internationalization. Swedish Higher Education and International Students, 1945-2015’ funded by the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet), and Nordic Fields of Higher Education. Structures and Transformations of Organization and Recruitment, 1985-2015 (NFHE), funded by NordForsk.
  • [2]In France this applies foremost to the private grandes écoles, especially in management, which place greater emphasis on personal and social characteristics than the state grandes écoles do (Allouch, 2013).
  • [3]For the sake of simplicity we refrain in this article from employing a third definition, the functional one, which we have made use of elsewhere, such as in an analysis of the elite segment of upper secondary education in Sweden (Börjesson et al., 2016). Elite educational institutions in the functional sense are sites for the formation of the elites of tomorrow, that is, those who in the future will occupy dominant positions in different fields. This function is very clear in the case of institutions at the apex of particular educational subspaces, such as the Stockholm School of Economics within the economic field or the Royal Institute of Art for fine arts careers. In this functional sense, elite education also operates on the lower tiers of the educational system, where certain high-profile schools and programmes prepare students for entry into sought-after exclusive programmes on higher levels. Internationally famous examples are American prep schools (Cookson, Persell, 1985), British public schools (Sutton Trust, 2008; Williams, Filippakou, 2010), and French classes préparatoires (Bourdieu, 1989). In Sweden such preparatory schools hardly exist outside the art school sector.
  • [4]For the upper class, the primary entity is not the individual itself but rather the extended family that may employ various means and strategies to safeguard its position, making use of various species of capital in doing so. Of course, there are relationships between the elites and the upper class. Upper class families tend to spring from individuals who have acquired elite positions that are then reproduced over time.
  • [5]Including veterinary science.
  • [6]Two programmes in law are included in the social sciences. There are no programmes in theology or education.
  • [7]Cf. Broady, Palme, 1992, and later studies on the spaces of upper secondary and higher education in Sweden.
  • [8]This section summarises results presented in Börjesson et al., 2014.
  • [9]The university colleges (högskolor) were established after the higher education reform in 1977, mainly through upgrading and merging teacher training colleges and health care institutes. Until recently, the main dividing line between universities and university colleges was that the former, unlike the latter, were entitled to award third-cycle qualifications and thus deliver doctorate degrees and receive direct government funding for research. Today, the differences have been reduced since the university colleges are now able to apply for entitlement to offer third cycle programmes in certain disciplinary domains. To complicate the picture further, almost all university colleges in Sweden prefer to use the term “university” in the English translation of their names although they are not entitled to this designation according to the Swedish administrative vocabulary.
  • [10]This change at all levels of the educational system was at that time a rather new phenomena observable in many countries; cf. e.g. Baudelot, Establet, 1992.
  • [11]The former grading system was relative, which meant that the pupils were graded on their performance in relation to all other pupils in their cohort on a national scale.
  • [12]For macro analyses of the relation between grades and marketisation, see Vlachos, 2010.
  • [13]The increasing numbers of top-scorers can also be related to the marketisation of the educational system, see Vlachos, 2010, pp. 49-51.

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