EDU Conference

Nordic Fields of Higher Education

Join the discussion on organisation, expansion and recruitment in Nordic higher education.

28-29.9.2016 - Uppsala, Sweden
Shortversion of programme (A4)


Nordic Fields of Higher Education – Organisation, Expansion and Recruitment

Higher education has been seen as one of the pillars of the welfare systems of the Nordic countries. Changes during the last three decades appear to have transformed the higher education systems in the Nordic countries into more diverse and complex national and international higher education landscapes.

What do these changes mean for the traditional Nordic model of education? Recruitment patterns may offer a key to understanding these effects, as changes in recruitment patterns over time provide indicators of changing valorisations of higher education programmes, institutions, and fields and types of study. Analysing recruitment patterns also makes it possible to evaluate the function of higher education in relation to the welfare state, evidencing the role it plays in democratic goals related to equity. The project Nordic Fields of Higher Education, funded by NordForsk 2013 to 2016, compares recruitment patterns at both an institutional and a discipline-related level in relation to organisational changes and expansion of the higher education system across Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

The key findings of the project Nordic Fields of Higher Education can be summarized in seven points under three headings and a general puzzle:


  • The Nordic model of higher education as developed from the mid-twentieth century has during the last three decades seen a number of challenges and developed in the direction of a more market-oriented system, although the pathways differ in the Nordic countries.
  • Decentralisation, re-regulation and internationalisation have led to more complex landscape of higher education.


  • Similar overall expansion traits in the four studied Nordic countries, including two major waves, in the 1960s and the 1990s, and large increase of social sciences, and especially business studies.
  • Different patterns of expansion in public sector oriented fields of study (more stable) and in private sector oriented fields of studies (more fluctuating)
  • A more diversified landscape of higher education has developed, where the universities, specialised institutions and longer professional programmes have become more exclusive.


  • A fairly stable and similar social structure of higher education in the four studied Nordic countries, with significant differences in recruitment based on social group and gender.
  • Similar patterns in inequality reductions in access to higher education in all four countries. However, while students (especially daughters) from low-education families have taken up on the opportunities that the expanding higher education system has offered them, the most prestigious professional university programmes continue to favour the more socially privileged children.


  • The different dimensions of higher education investigated in the project – the organisation, the expansion and the enrolment patterns – follow different logics. While both the organisational changes and the expansion phases are profound in all four countries, the social structures remains very stable over time and are surprisingly similar across nations. This puzzle will be dealt with in the conference.

Main results from the project