By Lucca Di Virgilio, Uppsala University, Sweden.
In my first week here, a pair of Swedish students gave the University of Uppsala a glowing endorsement. They told me that Uppsala, with 40,000 strong student population, was a University ‘run by students, for students’.
After an agonising process of scrutinising this claim, I must say, begrudgingly, it would be misleading to characterise the Univerity of Uppsala as anything other than a sort of student-utopia with the phrase ‘run by students, for students’ it’s unofficial motto.
In this University town, that is close enough to Stockholm to visit at the drop of a hat, it is clear to me that the student always comes first. In the two subsections that follow I will show how when it comes to student-wellbeing Sweden has got it right.
The postulations of the snus-taking Swedes have particular resonance when it comes to Uppsala’s social life.
In place of having societies, Uppsala University has student-run nations instead which, in exchange for a small fee, offer an eclectic range of sporting, musical and artistic pursuits. The nations are different sizes, from the towering and impersonal Stockholms nation and Västmanlands-Dala nation to the smaller yet friendlier Kalmar nation of which I’m a member. Although students stopped being required by law to join a nation in 2010, joining a nation offers myriad benefits. Not least, day-to-day entrance to nation bars, cafes and restaurants which are heavily discounted and weekly club nights. Being a member of a nation grants access to any nation-run activity across campus and allows international students to participate in the fabled Gasques which are traditional dinner parties culminating in Swedish hymns and dances.
Though the nations were created as homes-away-from-home for students coming from different parts of Sweden historically, their exclusivity has broken down with age. Now they have become a quintessential part of Swedish university culture which attracts thousands of international students each year. Indeed, students breathe the life and soul into the nation’s by working as part of the administrative or catering team where they can accrue points which can be used to apply for free residence at the nations. Though work at the nations is usually on a volunteer basis, consistent contritution to the nation opens the door for student to friendships and housing opportunities in their final year.
Naturally, the larger nations offer a greater range of events job opportunities and scholarship prospects as the recipients of most funding, nonetheless for the home-sick mancunian, the smaller ‘alternative’ nations have the most to offer in the way of concerts, jazz-nights and music sharing meet-ups.
As you’d expect the club nights in a small Swedish city are a far-cry from the broad palate offered in Manchester, most of the nation’s club nights feature the same dance-floor filling tracks you’d expect to hear on Capital FM. Nonethless, there is a indefinable charm to the way students flock to the clubs, in freezing cold or blistering wind, on any day of the week when they’d probably have a much more enjoyable time listening to the radio at home. Perhaps, it is the student-run ethos of the club nights which inspires students to come out in droves?
More likely still is the fact that club nights end by 2am and pre-drinking is an inconvenient and costly business in Sweden. Indeed, any alcohol over 3.5% can only be bought from Systembolaget, a government-owned chain of liquor stores which close at 8pm weekdays and have limited hours over the weekend. But, ultimately, this is a minor inconvenience and can be overcome by simple foresight.
Student accomodation in Uppsala adds another dimension to the social life at the finger tips of students. By far the largest and most popular student area is Flogsta, a suburb that is the same distance from campus as Fallowfield is from the SU. The complex itself is a thriving community of students who live in twelve person flats in seven storey blocks. Though aesthetically they are strikingly similar to Owens Park Tower, these flats are all self-catered, come equipped with an ensuite and cost a little over 4300 SEK (£327) a month with heating included. The fact that these flats are not owned outright by the University means that the building-complex also plays host to families who rent privately from the landlord.
The international presence in Flogsta is overwhelming and each flat is a petri-dish of cultures and nationalities. In my own, there are undergrads and postgrads from Mozambique, Germany and Japan to name a few. The heterogeneity of the accomodation offers the opportunity to educate yourself about the different cultures, try different cuisines and make contacts all over the globe.
The mix of cultures, absence of any security presence and size of the student population creates wild possibilities which I hope to go into greater detail about in later posts. But, perhaps the most apt example of the solidarity and freedom of expression found in Uppsala is the Flogsta scream, everyday at 10pm students in the Flogsta flats join in arms to scream from their windows and balconies to allieviate the pressure of academic life, which, conveniently, I will discuss now.
Freedom is as much of a factor in the academic arena as it is in the social arena of Uppsala University. Each department is devolved and has complete control over its syllabus. The autonomy of departments extends to the architectural design of the university, with each department having its own building with cafes, libraries and study spaces for students. Last year, 29% of the University’s profits of $75 million USD were reinvested into the improvement of undergrad and postgrad courses taught in each department. Clearly, the upkeep of the academic environment is high up on the university’s list of priorities.
For Humanities, Arts and Languages, the course structure is vastly different from Manchester. As oppose to studying three modules per semester, students undertake generally a module each month or two comprising 7.5 or 15 credits. And attend one to three 2-hour lectures a week plus the occasional non-compusory seminar. Though this system is not without its qualms, it nonetheless allows for very independent learning which affords students the time adjust to Sweden and time to join in at the Nations.
Student well-being is also at the heart of the University examination system since students can retake exams if they fail or miss the first exam they can retake without penalty. Though this system trades off the competitive edge UK University students attain by having one proper shot at a good grade, it mitigates the liklihood a student is having an ‘off’ day when exam season rolls around. Perhaps this is only possible due to the simplistic grading system used in Uppsala consisting of Pass/Fail and Pass with Distinction. Swedish exams are traditionally an hour or two longer than UK exams too, which gives students room to breath in a claustrophobic exam hall
The academic life of any student in Uppsala would not be complete without a second-hand bike. Uppsala certainly does not break the mold of the Netherlands and Scandanavian cycling culture. The ubiquity of cycling lanes and bike racks throughout the city makes buying a bike seem like a prequisite for fully embracing the student life. Bikes are easy and affordable to buy from one of the many second-hand bike shops in Uppsala or the Flogsta facebook page between 600-1000 SEK. And even easier to maintain as most cycling shops offer free repairs and servicing.
In light of these points, it is clear that the centrality of student well-being to Uppsala University is as clear as the Swedish sky.