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STUDYING IN SWEDEN

The essential words and phrases that explain student life in Sweden

Being an international student in Sweden is an experience that's likely to stick with you for the rest of your life. Here are the words and phrases you'll need to navigate student life and make the most of your time here.

The essential words and phrases that explain student life in Sweden
Learning just a few Swedish words will get you a long way in university life. Photo: Evelina Ytterbom/imagebank.sweden.se
Timing

When you first begin at university, the term starts with nollning, which means something like “zeroing”. It’s the equivalent of British Freshers Week and US orientation, where the nollor (“zeroes” or new students) are initiated into university life.

This involves a range of events organised by older students, which often include wearing the studentoverall (student overalls/boilersuit) and sometimes a rite of passage such as jumping in a lake or singing a song.

Some universities have their own unique words for first-year students, such as novisch at Lund and recentior or recce at many institutions.

After that, the termin (term or semester) properly begins. Don’t be confused by the word semester, which means holiday.

Take a look at your schema (course schedule) and kursplan (course syllabus) to find out when you have föreläsningar (lectures) and which are the obligatoriska moment (compulsory elements) in your course.

And finally, you’ve probably heard the stereotype of Swedes arriving exactly on time for everything. But students should familiarise themselves with the akademisk kvart (academic quarter), a tradition that means at some universities, most lectures or events start at 15 minutes past the hour. This dates back to a time when the hourly church bells served as a warning that students had 15 minutes to make it to class.

A lecture which is actually supposed to start on the hour might be indicated either by writing out the full time with the minutes included (e.g. 10.00 rather than 10), or by writing a full stop afterwards: 10.00 (.). The latter would be pronounced tio prick in speech (ten on the dot). Exams also usually start on the hour, rather than 15 minutes past.

Accommodation

You might be confused when you first hear that most Swedish students live in a korridor (corridor) but don’t worry, this doesn’t mean they actually sleep in the hallway. The set-up is similar to university halls in the UK: students live in a private room (you won’t have a roommate), and share kitchens with other students whose rooms are on the same corridor.

Work

When speaking to teachers, in Sweden you’ll usually use their first names, even if you’re speaking to a senior professor.

It’s also helpful to know a few of the terms used for different members of the faculty: the prefekt is the head of department; the studievägledare is the study advisor who can assist you in choosing which courses to pursue; a professor is of course a professor, but you’ll also encounter a lektor or adjunkt, both of which mean “lecturer”, but an adjunkt may not have a doctorate. And a handledare is a supervisor, especially for doctorate students.

You may also want to find out about the studentkår (student union), which works to protect the interests of students and should offer you support if you get into any difficulties.

Activities

It’s not all work and no play: there’s plenty to do as an international student in Sweden.

At Lund and Uppsala in particular, social life revolves around nationer (nations), which are student organisations you sign up to in order to attend their regular events through the semester or year. They are named after different historical provinces of Sweden and traditionally students would join the one representing their hometown, but these days you can choose based on size and the events on offer.

There are other activities on offer, such as joining a sportförening (sports club) where you can take part in a favourite sport or learn a new Swedish one: innebandy (floorball) or orientering (orienteering: the English word comes from the Swedish), anyone?

And even if you’re not a fan of exercise, there’s no excuse not to participate in the Swedish friluftsliv, which literally means “open air life” and refers to making the most of the outdoors, from barbecues to long walks in the forest.

At least some of your socialising will probably revolve around fika (coffee and cake – call it a pluggfika or “study fika” if you’ll also be cracking out the textbook) or drinks, either at a korridorfest (dorm party) or a bar.

When it comes to fika, it’s worth looking for places that offer free coffee refills (gratis påtår) if you plan on hunkering down for the afternoon with your laptop. And two crucial bits of vocabulary for bars: afterwork (referring to after-work drinks, which usually means discounts at city centre spots) and skål! (cheers – remember to look everyone in the eye as you say it).

Be aware of Sweden’s laws around alcohol purchase and consumption, which might be surprising if your home country has more lenient legislation. You need to be 18 to buy alcohol at a pub or bar, and some places have their own age limits which might be a bit higher, so be ready to show your legitimation (ID) or leg for short. To purchase alcohol at the state-run monopoly Systembolaget, you need to be at least 20 years old.

When it comes to ordering your drinks, here are some useful phrases to have up your sleeve: en stor stark (literally “a big strong”, referring to a large lager beer), husets rött/vitt (the house red/white wine), en lättöl (a low-alcohol beer, for those evenings when you want to take it easy). Just make sure you don’t turn up to lectures bakis (hungover).

Traditions

We’ll start with the weirdest: the Flogstavrål (Flogsta scream or roar). Students in the Flogsta area of Uppsala open their windows and let out a scream, each week at precisely 10pm on Tuesday (because Swedes are organised and efficient even when it comes to letting out their angst). No one really knows when or why this tradition began, but it’s been going on for at least 40 years.

You’ll also hear it at many other student areas, where it might be named after the local student residence, such as Lund’s Delphivrål, or simply called the tioskrik or elvavrål (the ten o’clock scream or the eleven o’clock roar).

The biggest student night of the year is Valborg (Walpurgis) on April 30th, an evening of bonfires (valborgsbål or majbrasor) and merriment just before the big exam season. Part of the celebration sees students don their student caps (studentmössa) in a special ceremony.

Money

As a student there are savings to be made. Look out for the magic words studentrabatt (student discount) or ungdomsrabatt (young person’s discount) to cut costs on everything from food to concert tickets. To be eligible for the former, you may well need a studentkort (student card).

You’ll probably want to download payment app Swish if you have a Swedish phone number and bank account: this allows you to send money to other app users, whether that’s when you’re splitting the bill with friends or buying secondhand furniture at a loppis (flea market). The app is so widely used in Sweden that it has become a verb, as in kan du swisha mig? (can you send me the money via Swish?)

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WORKING IN SWEDEN

‘It’s an endemic problem’: Why PhD students in Sweden are waiting months to get paid

When Nico Meffe arrived at Lund to start his doctorate, he didn't expect to wait three months to get paid. The Local spoke to him about Swedish universities' reluctance to transfer funds to foreign accounts.

'It's an endemic problem': Why PhD students in Sweden are waiting months to get paid

Meffe, from Toronto in Canada, arrived in Sweden a few weeks before his contract was due to start, hoping to use the time to sort out his residency, bank account and more, but when he visited banks in Sweden, none would give him an account within a reasonable time.

He then discovered, to his frustration, that the university was not willing to pay his salary into a foreign bank account. 

“The money gets transferred to my supervisor and then he is supposed to transfer me the money, but apparently he was told that because of international money-laundering laws and stuff like that, he couldn’t transfer it to a non-Swedish account,” Meffe said. 

It ended up taking four stressful months before Meffe managed to get issued a Swedish personal number and open a bank account so he could get paid, during which time he had racked up hundreds of thousands of kronor in debt, maxing out all his Canadian credit cards and drawing heavy interest payments.

“I’d worked a few years in the private sector before coming here, so I had savings and I was able to live off my credit cards and stuff like that. But frankly, you know, there’s a stress factor in literally not knowing when you’re going to get paid,” he said. “And I probably paid hundreds, if not thousands, of Canadian dollars in interest payments.” 

He was also lucky that his younger sister worked in Copenhagen in a relatively well-paid job, and so was also able to lend him money, but he worries about other students who have faced the same problems without any savings or support.  

He said he had first approached Handelsbanken. 

“They said that with just a passport and a letter from the university saying that they were going to employ me that it was going to about five months or more to open up a bank account,” he said. “They were just going to have to do a lot of processing to confirm my identity.

“I’m frustrated as I feel like the university could have given me some sort of warning about this,” Meffe said. “They could have said, ‘you have been accepted to this PhD position. By the way, this is how the banking system works here. Please make sure that you have some money saved’.”

According to Dominic Mealy, a board member of SULF Lund, Sweden’s union for university professors and researchers, Meffe’s problem is extremely common but has only come to the union’s attention relatively recently, after he and others in the union began looking into it. 

“We have found that new employees that were non-Swedish were often experiencing big delays in receiving payments, sometimes very long delays. And we’ve also established that it’s an ongoing issue in other universities,” he told The Local. 

“It’s an endemic problem and it’s a complex problem which entails a failure on the part of the university sector to get the information that they should provide to new employees. There is also a more systemic problem around confusion on the part of banks about what they can and cannot do, and also perhaps shortcomings in the current organisation of Swedish personal numbers.” 

Mealy is now pushing to get the issue on the agenda at the SULF national conference, so that properly informing new researchers of the bank account issue and helping them overcome it can become something universities have to do under collective bargaining agreements with unions.

He has also arranged meetings with the HR department at Lund University to discuss how they can improve the on-boarding process for new employees so they receive better information about how to minimise the delayed payment issue. 

Mealy has discovered that if newly arrived students first try to get a coordination number, rather than wait for a full personal number, which is what Lund University wrongly recommends, it was usually possible to open a bank account more rapidly. 

“It does seem like there is a way around it based on the current rules and we’re going to try and inform our members. In the short term we’re aiming to work with the university to improve information for faculty administrators as well as for new employees. In the long-term we are hoping to apply pressure at a national level to address these issues.” 

In the years that this problem has existed, PhD students’ supervisors have often solved the situation informally by lending students money to tide them over, as happened in Mealy’s own case. But he has also heard of extreme cases where those affected had had to leave the country. 

“I’ve heard of instances of people for whom, despite efforts on the part of their departments, the situation has gone on for five months, and they’ve had to return to their country of origin,” he said. “This seems to have occurred in instances, in particular, of people who are from outside the EU.” 

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