Equal access to quality education and quality assurance in Sweden

Katak Malla



Equal access to quality education is undoubtedly a vital necessity for any country to progress and sustain its worthiness with the aim that all citizens have equal value and therefore should have equal access to education. The fact that there are correlations between quality education and competent leaderships in all walks of life, quality education is also important for a well-functioning developed state. In Sweden, the move from a public-school system to a system with state-financed public and private schools, as well as a parallel move from state-run schools to schools being run by the local levels, according to Pisa research, has threatened equal access to quality education and led to falling results of pupils’ knowledge in Mathematics, reading and writing, depending on geographic location, social class/education level of parents. This paper focuses on the Swedish school reforms (from the early 1990s), i.e. decentralisation/recentralisation and measures dealing with the consequences of reforms (2008 onwards). The three key issues selected for discussion are; 1) a decentralized/local self-government-based public and/or private school education; 2) equality and the right to education financed by the welfare state; 3) quality education at school and university levels, including quality assurance components in Sweden (rf., the Swedish Education Act, the Swedish Higher Education Act and the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area). In view of the ongoing implementation of Nepal’s constitution (2015)- and especially ensuring Nepali citizen’s right to equal access to quality education – this presentation maybe relevant for the policy makers and education providers at the central, provinces and local levels of the federal republic of Nepal. This is an appraisal how the people in a distant territory, with different mechanisms, conduct their quality education, but this is not any kind of recommendation from anywhere to anyone.


When I received the invitation from theorganiser of the International Conference on Challenges and Prospects of Quality Education in Nepal in Federalism Era for a key note speech, the broader issuescame to my mind that are seldom discussed, i.e. what it really means to be educatedand who decidesthe content of the education or what should be taught, and at what cost? Thereare no easy answers to these questions but these are worthy questions,especially at a time whenthe world’s democratic and socio-civic valuesare beingdegraded;and when many role models,most leaders andheads of state or governments are betraying the people they represent.[1]Even the world’s well-known universities – the cradle of leadership-are tarnishing the educational value, integrity and character, e.g. Oxford and Cambridge universities have invested “tens of millions of pounds in offshore tax havens”.[2]This is not only civic ‘tax issues’, it is also ‘hypocrisy’ and poorleadership of these educational institutions.[3]At the end of my presentation, though difficult as they are I willattempt to deal withthe broader issues especially fromthe perspective of course content of social science, which I believe determines value, integrity and character of any society and its worthiness.[4]

First let mebeginwith some specific points of consensus among theworld’s educationalists, which may help us to deal with the above-mentioned questions, that: a) quality education is a basic human need, if not a right; b) no statecan progress without a system of universal, inclusive primary, secondary and higher education; c) trained school teachersare instrumental to provide quality education (to teach science, math, language, social science, technical and vocational studies); and d) student-friendly class rooms, at least free meals and basic health care are necessary for efficient learning; and e) education systemsconstantly need to be monitored, evaluated and improved. These five points of consensus, in my view, are applicable everywhere in the world, providing the students quality ‘knowledge’, ‘skill’ and ‘attitude’.[5]

As elsewhere, quality education is obviously necessary inNepaland the topic is very important and relevant to deal with within the framework of Nepal’s new constitution (2015), which has framed the country into seven federal provinces and many local municipalities. A new administrative structure at the local, provincial and national levels has emerged in the aftermath of the 2017 elections in Nepal. The flesh and blood of the structure is still to be known. It is in this context that necessary changes for quality education become specifically relevant for Nepal. However, for this discussion, we shall avoid misconceptions that has dominated the constitutional discourse, especially during the time of Nepal’s constitution writing, i.e. pitting the concepts of federalization against decentralisationand vice versa. Itshould be acknowledged thata fully authorised local self-government under a unitary systemcouldsustain and exercise full autonomy (e.g., the central government of Sweden has no right to dissolve elected local governments whereas in quasi-federal systemse.g.,in India wherethe central government has often dissolved federal state governments).

Obviously, the shiftingof thepower from the centre to the local levelsof any country resultsin certain positive outcomes.Thepolicy makers, nevertheless, must be ready to deal with some unintended consequences, when the centralised power (good or bad) is shifted from the centre to local levels. While implementing the decentralisation, credible research shows that, it is imperative that the policy makers have a clear thinking of the consequences regarding the quality and equality of education, i.e.the content of education and the cost of education. It should be also realised that economically weak and technologically less advanced municipalities will face challenges of exercising autonomy and implementing necessary changes. A delicate balance will be necessary between the central and local levels to achieve the five-points of consensus mentioned earlier.

This presentation ispartly based on my experience of more than two decades as a student, researcher and university teacher in Sweden. In this paper, I have also used and interpreted the Swedish sources, e.g. the Swedish Education Act, the Upper Secondary School Ordinance and the Adult Education Ordinance; the Swedish Higher Education Act and the Higher Education Ordinance; the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area; and the Swedish Government national goals for preschool, compulsory and upper secondary schools as well as official reports. Where it is felt necessary, some relevant examples from Western European countries and the US are also used. Some sourcesfrom Nepal, e.g. constitutional provisions, have also been used. Essentially, I will outline the Swedish education reforms from the early 1990s, e.g. decentralisation, recentralisation, and measures dealing with the consequences of the reform from 2008 onwards.I am not making any recommendations in this, because I have been away from Nepal for more than two decades, and do not intend to be a part of the ‘orientalists’ to misrepresent the actual educational needs. Secondly, I believe that any attempts to copy (or impose) outside educational models have been proven historically negative. Nor do I wish to be enlisted myself in the group of scholars, who went to Western universities and when they return to their country of origin proposed the very kind of syllabus used in the Western universities.I am talking about situations where the syllabus in social science has been copied from universities of the colonial powers. As a result, the students in the developing countries were taught and learnt (as many post-colonial studies suggest) more about the history of the colonial powers than their local history, whereas the colonial power properly never taught their own colonial history.

The threesub-themes under the main topic ‘equal access to quality education and quality assurance system in Sweden’ that I intend to explore, based on the Swedish reforms for quality education, are; 1) a decentralized/local self-government-based public and/or private school education; 2) equality and the right to education financed by the welfare state; and 3) implementation of quality education at school and university levels, including quality assurance.

1 A decentralized/local self-government-based public and/or private school education

Studies on the relationship between decentralisation and the quality of education suggest that decentralisation leads to empowerment and collaboration among teachers, brings a focus on professional development and promotes a sense of accountability at the local level. In addition, curriculum implementationat local levels may provide space for local relevance, motivate students, enhanceskills, knowledge and attitudes and above all increase the democratic functions at the local level.

Other studies suggest that decentralisation of education is not without adverse consequences.The Swedish schooldecentralisation and reform experiencestell usthat dual-facedchallenges arise when decentralisation takes place. On one hand, it is necessary for the central governmentto keep the oversight role, and on the other hand it is also necessary to ensurethe autonomy of schools. In Sweden, the central government and the municipalities, i.e. the local level, havedifferent roles in this regard, but the middle level, i.e. the provincial level in Nepal, is not involved. Currentlyin Nepal, it is unclearhow the central government, the seven provincial governments andthe local municipalities are going to divide the responsibilities in education.

During this time Sweden also faced a financial crisis with less public resources available and an increasing housing segregation with the result that pupils from low-income families lived in the same area. It is of course hard to pinpoint what effect any specific reform has had, but according to studies this has resulted in more homogenous group of pupils with the same socio-economic backgroundgathering in the schools.[6]

A few years after the Swedish reforms, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) assessments revealed Sweden’s quality education crisis. Despite no fee-paying schools, no school dress code and no formal interaction between teacher and students unlike Anglo-section tradition, as well as free meal at schools the crisis chocked the country.The overall consequences of the reforms are identified as (a)disparity of quality education not only between municipalities but also between public or private schools, (b) declining quality education especially in science, reading and maths, and, (c) the most serious consequence is dropout that more students left compulsory schooling than ever before.[7] This particularly hit the foreign-born pupils and“tackling the increasing performance gap between foreign-born and native students is a challenge (in 2017).”[8]Several commissions and projects have been launched to find out the reasons and how to deal with the sinking quality. In recent years, “the Swedish government has boosted resources to tackle inequalities.”[9]

Recentralisation: the Swedish government has taken several steering measures to deal with the inequalities and falling school results.New regulations have been put in place e.g. in the Education Act and supervision through establishing theSwedish Schools Inspectorate in 2008 to control the quality of schools. The four main areas of inspections are: 1) regular supervision, covering all schools in a period of four/five years for equality of education; 2) thematic quality evaluations, focusing on quality issues subjects or functions; 3) investigations of complaints from individual students or their parents against schools; and 4) scrutiny of applications to start independent (private) schools and inspection visits to newly established independent schools.The Inspectorate has “the right to sanction municipal schools and to withdraw approvals and public funding for independent schools that do not fulfil their obligations in accordance with rules and regulations.”[10]

In short, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate is responsible for supervision, quality assurance, and complaints for public and private schools and for assessing permits for private schools.

Among the tools of recentralisation special or extra funds from the government budget has been put in place for the local level to apply for. Recently a whole set of additional funding has been put in place with the aim to decrease the inequalities between schools. As the present Minister of Education recently (Sept. 14, 2017) said “your future should not be limited by where and in which family you grow up, your future should depend on your own effort as a pupil”.[11] These recent initiatives are aimed for schools in need to enhance equal opportunities.

2 Equality and the right to education ensured by the welfare state system

The economically rich class can afford quality education for their children at private schools in Nepal and elsewhere, paying expensive private school fees.Whether public schools are better than private schools, or vice versa, is politically controversial,because opposing political ideologies having different preferences, e.g. in Sweden, the left parties favour public schools whereas right-wing parties push for more privatization. However, in Sweden this discussion takes place in an environment where it is taken for granted that education should be free for everyone. And that both public and private schools are funded by the local level, not by school fees. It is written in the Education Act that schooling should be free from cost for the parents.

What is the cost of education in Sweden?

Seventy percent of the school expenditures is financed by taxes from the local level”[12]and the rest is financed by the state budget to adjust for socio-economic differences. This means that there is no school fee to be paid by the pupils in Sweden. Each child in Sweden is funded by the public budget under its welfare system. In the past few national election times, political party leaders have debated how to prevent the publicly-financed private schools from making profit; “Sweden invests heavily in education, with publicexpenditure on education among the highest in the EU.”[13]

Privatisation of education continues within the Swedish welfare system andthe Chair of Sweden’s Internationella Engelska Skolan, Barbara Bergström, acknowledges that“if we were not for profit we would not be where were we are today.”[14] There is a constant discussion in Sweden as to how to prevent public money being used for private profit.

How the publicly financed public and private school system works?

Both public and private schools in Sweden are funded by the public budget, which is known as “voucher system –funds following the choice of school”. All education providers, public or private, national or local, must provide education and services according to the Education Act, so that all children get the high-qualityeducation according to their needs. At the same time, the government authority evaluates schools on specific grounds.Schools can lose their mandate every fourth year depending on the result.

Sweden has ratified the UN Convention on the rights of the child, and so has Nepal.[15] What does the education as a human right mean to the poor and the marginalised? Jurists may define what it means either from the black letter interpretation of the law or from a critical legal approach to the law. The black letter interpretation of Nepal’s constitution 2015, in its preamble, is that the constitution has embraced socialism, but notthe welfare state as a goal, and in Article 42social justice is definedas a fundamental right.One factor that guarantee the right to education – as a human right, and equal access to education is the amount- percent of GNP- spent in the education sector (Sweden about 8 and Nepal 4 per cent of GNP). Another important factor is the political will of the country.

The middle class in Nepal is increasing andthe private school market is flourishing. Reasons for the increase ofthe private school market in Nepal may be that most public schools are under-funded, the respect for the teaching profession is declining since teachers are generally appointed based on their affiliations with the political parties, and as a result there is a lack quality education in public schools. Under these circumstances, it is understandable that even people living inday-to-day financial hardships have no option but to send their children to private schools. Hopefully, this conference will propose useful recommendations as to how Nepal should and could empower public schools and colleges to guarantee equal access to quality education, which arguably will help to breakdown the existing social class, divide in Nepal.

3 Implementation of quality education at school and university levels

The Education Act is the governing law on education in Sweden. The other regulations include the upper secondary school ordinance and the adult education ordinance. TheGovernment sets the overall national goalsfor preschool, compulsory and upper secondary schools.

The Ministry of Education and the National Agency for Education(NAE) collaborate across schools and municipalities for different aspects of the evaluation and assessment.

The NAEis the central administrative authority for the schools, which developsschoolcurriculums, syllabuses andsubjects, school programmes, as well as the goals of school educationand school diploma.The NAE sets the frames and guidelines on the education, aiming at the quality results and continuous improvement.The NEA evaluates activities through in-depth studies and follow-ups of school activities.

Preschool age in Sweden is 1-5 years. Generally, preschool starts from the age of 3, but if needed parents can send their child from the age of 1. The aim of preschool is to “stimulate the child’s development and learningand provide a secure care environment.”Private school providers and municipals run preschools.

Compulsory school starts when the child reaches the age of seven in class 1-9.Municipal or private education providers run compulsory schools.There are also compulsory school for pupils with learning disabilities withspecific curriculum and syllabuses. There are also special schools, e.g. the Sami school, international schools, national boarding schools, special youth homes and Swedish schools abroad. There are also leisure-time centres connected to compulsory schools.

After completing compulsory school, the upper secondary education applies to students up to the age of 20, class 10-12. The theoretical programmes for theupper secondary education include, English, mathematics and five other compulsory school subjects.Vocational programmes and apprenticeship educationare given in the areas of child and recreation, building and construction, electricity and energy, vehicle and transport, business and administration, handicraft, hotel and tourism, industrial technology, natural resource use, restaurant management and food, property management, and health and social care.

The current Swedish national standard-setting and quality test of the school education is based ontrust in the school professionals who carry outevaluation and assessment of each pupil over the years to ensure that the pupil reaches the goals of learning. Teacher’s evaluation is important, monitoring the quality of teaching and learning.


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National tests include wide range ofcurriculum goals, performance-based tasks including oral assessment and team projects with summative text in year 9.

Higher education: In Sweden, the higher education institutions (HEIs) are universities or university colleges authorized to provide higher education by the country’s law and regulations. The universities and colleges are autonomous public authorities, but there are also independent providers, i.e. private HEIs operated by organizations, foundations etc.

The universities and university colleges that are public authoritiesmust follow the laws and regulations like any other authority in Sweden. The private HEIs also must follow the regulations regarding higher education, outlined in the Higher Education Act. Since the early 1990s, the HEIs, whether public or private, have been granted more freedom as how to shape their activities. There are for example no longer any national curriculums to follow for HEIs. Rather they have the right to determine which courses and programs they wish to offer and the curriculum for the programs. However, the learning outcomes that the students should achieve before a degree is issued are stated in the Higher Education Ordinance.

Which degrees can be issued is listed in the Higher Education Ordinance with learning outcomes set for each degree. The Government also regulates which HEI is authorised to issue which degree, and in this way, there is a quality assessment prior to an HEI offering a programme leading to a certain degree. For example, a university or university college that wishes to start a program leading to a professional degree or a degree in Fine Arts, the HEI will have to apply to the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ), which is the authority thatassesses the application.

The Authority also evaluates the quality of higher education, monitors whether universities follow the laws and regulations and monitors efficiency and collects statistics in the higher education sector. The Authority is headed by a Director General appointed by the Government (earlier known as Chancellor).

The HEIs and the Authority have a shared responsibility for quality assurance in higher education.A board governs HEIs, which is responsible for ensuring management and planning its future development. The boards consist of a chair and other members. The Government on the proposal of the HEI appoints eight of the members.The Government appoints the chairperson of the board and the board then elects a Vice-chairperson. The Vice-Chancellor is a board member appointed by the Government, responsible for the day-to-day running of HEIs, including a pro-Vice-chancellor.

Higher educationprogrammesare offered in business management, economics, arts, humanities, natural science, medicine, social science andtechnology. Online university education programs are increasing (myself conducting two master’s programmes at Umeå University, Sweden).

Higher education quality assurance components: Authorized by the Government and based on Swedish laws, Ordinances and the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG), the Swedish Higher Education Authority has recently developed four new quality assurance components, and the components are: appraisal of applications for degree-awarding powers; institutional reviews of the HEIs’ quality assurance processes; program evaluations; thematic evaluations.[16]The aspect areas along which the evaluation takes place in the four components are: 1) Governance and organization, 2) Environment, resources and area, 3) Design, teaching/learning and outcomes, 4) Follow-up, actions and feedback together with three perspectives 1) student perspective, 2) working life perspective, and 3) gender equality perspective.

These four quality assurance components have been assembled in a new quality assurance system with the aim to support the internal quality assurance processes of the HEIs. This means that each HEI is responsible for ensuring high quality in their respective programs, i.e. to have an internal quality assurance work. TheAuthority’s reviews can be considered as external reviews and are based on peer review with independent external assessment panels performing the reviews. The panelconsists of subject experts, student representatives as well as employer and labour market representatives, who all play equally valuable roles in the assessment panel.

The Authority’s reviews and pilot studies started in the autumn 2016 and the regular, six-year review cycle started in 2017.

The assignment also includes to annually report of how well the quality assurance system ensures study program quality and the degree to which the system has served to improve quality for HEIs and their study programs.[17]

Private higher education institutions in Sweden: Public and private HEIs must adhere to the same quality assurance system, since the Higher Education Acts applies to both public and private education providers. Normally when a private higher education institution receives degree awarding power the government provides funding for a certain number of students. Therefore, students do not need to pay fees either to private or public universities.The students from the EU, EEA and Switzerland can study in Sweden without paying fees. However, students from other countries are required to pay an application and tuition fees. Students coming to Sweden through exchange agreement do not need to pay fees to study at HEIs.[18]

In conclusion of the three themes discussed above, it is fair to say that there are educational quality assurance mechanisms in place in Swedento monitor, evaluate and improve equal access to quality education at schools and universities. It is also fair to say that when reforms of decentralisation have taken place they have had to be followed with measures to ensure quality as well as equality to all.

Quality Assurance and Accreditation is the means and aim of improving quality of education in Nepal. There are set Criteria and Benchmarks, but the implementation of the guideline remains to be seen.[19]

4 The broader issues

Part of the present-day problem is educational indoctrination as to how one’s own nation, flag and identity are more important than others, and how one’s own race is pure, culture and religion is superior than others, instead of letting students be free individuals, exploring their critical mind, which Wilhelm von Humboldt called the enlightened individual and the World citizen:“People obviously cannot be good craft workers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens.”[21]

Who decides what should be educational content? Knowledge is known as power, but the one who decides the course curriculum, set debate agendas and narratives, controls the power. In most cases, the course content is intertwining with national or local politics, e.g. “a Republican lawmaker in Arkansas has introduced a bill in the state legislature to prevent public schools from assigning books by Zinn, whose best-known book, “A People’s History of the United States,” is a telling of American history from the perspective of the oppressed people.”[22] The opponents of evolution in the US have tried to stop Darwin’s theory from public school. In fact, “the politics of climate change poses a stark dilemma for anyone wanting to push back against the purveyors of post-truth.”[23] The thematic course issues, right or wrong, also intertwine with religion, e.g. Amish parents in the US keep their children out of public schools for religious reasons. They do not need to follow the national curriculum.[24]The US Supreme Court has ruled that parents have a fundamental right to direct the education of their children.[25]Home education is legal in the UK too if it comes to educate one’s own children. One doesn’t need to be qualified teacher to teach one’s own children.[26]In Sweden, there are necessary teaching qualifications and it is compulsory forpupils to attend school up class 9. The purpose of the school education is to provide equal access to benefit from education to obtain, develop knowledge and promote all-round personal development of children. Specifically, the aim of the Swedish education is to help students “to be active, creative, competent and responsible individuals and citizens with democratic values, respectinghuman rights, in cooperation with student’s parents”(Earlier on, the term ‘Christian tradition’ was mentioned in the Education Act, but it is amended). Equally important aim is to encourage children’s lifelong lust for learning.

What does it mean to be really educated? It may signify different things for different people and different societies. Educated persons are generally identified in terms of knowledge, skill and attitude, also referred to as‘public intellectuals’ who, according to Edward Said, are‘amateur’ (not necessarily expert), ‘detached’ (from the issue as well as involved with the issue) and have ‘universality’with attitude, taking a risk to go beyond the easy certainty provided by one’s ownbackground, language, nationality, which so often shields oneself from the reality of others.[27]Being educated is also a mind-set to critical thought, opposite of indoctrination. It is also skill to unlearn (e.g., dogmas and superstitions) and not to try to classify others into any kind of hierarchy and not to try to rule others.

As Harold Shapiro says, and I agree, that “the ultimate test, of course, is not what we teach, but what students learn and what they become”.[28]It is the educated class – ‘intellectuals’ – who could either usher change for the better progress and welfare or regression and accumulation of individual wealth and power, the question is which side of history, or argument(to speak for the power or in favour of the oppressed)the educated/intellectuals whish ‘to be, or not to be’.

Finally, let me end this paper with some open questions: Can Nepal progress with a small part of population being well educated? What are workable plan of actions to empower public schools for equal access to quality education? Where public schools cannot provide quality education, who should? Who should steer the quality and content, and who should pay? What role the central government, the seven provinces and municipalities of Nepal will have as qualityeducation providers? What lesson can be learned from others educational reform relating decentralisation, recentralisation and the central government’s right to oversight to quality education? Is there political will in Nepal, whether to consider the state financed public and private schools, ensuring equal access to quality education?

[1] Revealed: Queen’s private estate invested millions of pounds offshore>; Bono used Malta-based firm to invest in Lithuanian shopping centre;
[2]Paradise Papers: Oxford and Cambridge invested tens of millions offshore >
[3]ElanaSulakshana, Eleanor Salter, Julia Peck and Angus Satow, Oxbridge must end dirty investments – both offshore and oil,

[4] The public education system, established after the so-called age of the enlightenment in Europe, aimed to supply trained manpower to meet the need of industrialisation. The two main pillars of the education were and are economic and cultural education. Culturally, the aim was and is to maintain religious and cultural traditions (DNA) of societies, while economically to supply trained manpower and job was guaranteed after education. Now, education is not a guarantee for job as many educated and trained people are unemployed in the age of globalization, privatization and with ongoing cybernetic revolution. How can the education system have developed from and based on the industrialisation adjusted in the modern times? I am curious! This paper does not deal with this issue.

[5] According to the Swedish Act on Amendment of the Higher Education Ordinance (2011:946).










[15] Article 31 of Nepal’s constitution (2015), which reads as follows. Right relating to education: (1) Every citizen shall have the right of access to basic education. (2) Every citizen shall have the right to get compulsory and free education up to the basic level and free education up to the secondary level from the State. (3) The citizens with disabilities and the economically indigent citizens shall have the right to get free higher education in accordance with law. (4) The visually impaired citizens shall have the right to get free education through brail script and the citizens with hearing or speaking impairment, to get free education through sign language, in accordance with law. (5) Every Nepalese community residing in Nepal shall have the right to get education in its mother tongue and, for that purpose, to open and operate schools and educational institutes, in accordance with law.

[16]National system for quality assurance of higher education Presentation of a government assignment

[17] ibid.

[18]Students must pay fee regardless of citizenship (BSc programs: 100 000 SEK/ year, MSc programs: 150 000 SEK/year) and PhD programs is free of charge.

[19] Nepal’s Quality Assurance and Accreditation guideline (2013),

[20] Revealed: Queen’s private estate invested millions of pounds offshore>; Bono used Malta-based firm to invest in Lithuanian shopping centre;
[21]As quoted in Profiles of educators: Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) by Karl-Heinz Günther (1988)




[25]Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972); Home Schooling and the U.S. Constitution – FindLaw”, Retrieved 2017-08-31.


[27]Edward Said, Reith Lectures, Representations of the Intellectuals BBC (1993)

[28]Harold T Shapiro, A Larger Sense of Purpose (2005)


Full text of the seminar paper presented at international conference on quality education in federal Nepal organized by GPFN on February 23-24, 2018.