Neoliberalism as the “Docking Station” of Swedish Welfare Discourse: Merging Ideological Frames in Swedish Higher Education

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society.  Click here to access the full article.

For many scholars Sweden remains the quintessential social democratic welfare state. Yet of late Sweden has embraced neoliberalism in starker ways than other Nordic countries. The modern day free market dogma in Sweden sometimes takes surprising forms: parents signing their children up for private schools the minute they are born (since being born on a Saturday sets you back in the queue compared with children born on a Monday). At the same time we can see that the rise of Sweden Democrats, a far-right populist party, is a consequence of resurgent nationalism and welfare chauvinism. How (if at all) can the traditional social democratic values co-exist with the strong contemporary neoliberal and nationalist discourses?

We suggest that the “docking station” of Swedish welfare discourse has shifted from social democracy to neoliberalism. We see neoliberalism as discursive shapeshifting that does not simply transform local social citizenship and social policy but adapts to local contexts and policy debates to create a very distinctive Swedish neoliberal discourse. Peck (2010) describes neoliberalism as ‘parasitical’, constantly borrowing and building on other approaches and political ideologies, including social democratic and nationalist approaches. The neoliberal understanding of students relies upon a core set of metaphors such as ‘students as consumers’, ‘students as managers of themselves’ and ‘students as a commodity of human capital’ . We argue that such metaphors are too streamlined as neoliberal metaphors for students need to be “docked in” the locally relevant permutations of the neoliberal discourse

The introduction of student fees for non-EU students in Swedish higher education serves as our case, reflecting a shift from universal tax financing towards a more individualised fee-paying solution. In Sweden, student fees were introduced for non-European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA) citizens in 2011. The state relinquished control over admissions and funding of non-EU students to individual universities, symbolising another step away from a Scandinavian social democratic model and towards partial privatisation. The reforms suggest a fundamental shift in policy whereby universities are able to determine the level of overseas tuition fees, administer fees and develop programmes of study for overseas students.

To understand this shift we rely on the analytic tools of frames and metaphors. Frames, in turn, are seen as ‘schemata of interpretation’ that guide individuals ‘to locate, perceive, identify, and label’ events and conditions around them and which is often used as a ‘strategic and deliberate activity aimed at generating public support for specific policy ideas’. Merged frames are hybrids that comprise elements of each of the input schemas, but contribute to a new frame that becomes its own separate and unique structure.  Metaphors, on the other hand, need to be understood in the context of larger overarching frames. Metaphors are utilised to reinforce particular frames through particular applications. In the context of the article we propose two such merged frames for the Swedish debates of introducing student fees for non-EU students: competitive welfare nationalism and competitive global social liberalism.

Competitive neoliberal welfare nationalism

This frame argues that a country become competitive by charging international students who have become a financial burden, who have decreased the educational quality and have attracted international educational tourism. Within this frame we find following applied metaphors for international students:

Free riders/Welfare tourists: There are students that could pay but are only coming to Sweden because it is free and thereby induce costs that will decrease the quality. High end consumers: There is a need to see non-EU/EEA students as high end consumers that are willing to pay for high quality education and these high fees could go into creating a high end product.
Bad investment: The added value of these students does not compensate for the costs they add to higher education. These costs could be invested into raising the quality of education. Strategic investment: There needs to be a more efficient scholarship system to attract people who could not pay and have the skills that Sweden need.

Competitive global social liberalism

The above neoliberal welfare frame with its associated metaphors was challenged by a competitive and global social liberalism where a country becomes competitive by being open and attractive to the best talents of the world and creating the global lecture room. Within this frame we find following applied metaphors for international students:

Strategic Investment: Investing in foreign students by having fees will lead to better (economic and social) relationships with important developing countries. It is also seen as a discounted investment in students who have already been educated in their homelands.

Enrichment: The students will create a global classroom where national students can learn from the international students and themselves become global players. It is also about attracting the smartest brains on a global scale to make Sweden globally competitive.

It is interesting to see that even if both frames use the metaphor of strategic investment, there is disagreement as to what this means for international tuition fees. It suggests metaphors are rhetorical and discursive as they are directly linked to a particular position in a debate rather than to a blue print as to what neoliberal students mean. The article concludes that these merged frames and their metaphors might differ in many ways but they do share one thing: a common understanding of how social citizenship is being transformed towards both an entrepreneurial citizenship and a social investment state.

Swedish society is now addressed as a ‘complex of human and social capital in need of investment’ and the social investment approach embraced by government sees ‘fellow citizens as responsible learners and offers a learning infrastructure for enabling and facilitating learning’. We see how metaphors of students and metaphors of citizens become interlinked. Whilst Sweden still has quite some way to go to reach the heady heights on neoliberalism elsewhere, such as the US, there remains a distinctive Swedish neoliberal docking station at the heart of the Swedish welfare state discourse that matters for both education and citizenship.


About the authors

Johan Nordensvärd is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University.

Markus Ketola is Research Director at the School of Applied Social and Policy Sciences, Ulster University.

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