Using collaboration to compete on an international level

In the second part of the interview Artworks contributor Ulf Waltré sits down with the new president of Stockholm School of Economics Lars Strannegård to discuss how SSE stands out against the world’s best schools

9 min read

Read part 1 of the interview

In terms of bachelor level courses SSE has a focus on retail and a focus on more general education. If you were going to develop a third point of focus what would it be?

I think that there are a lot of different directions to consider. I don’t know if that’s what we should be thinking about, but it’s one strategy, and we’re not currently doing it. If we did then we could look into industry specific focus areas. That lies within SSE’s core model, the fact that the school lives in a so close relationship with the business community and the society at large. I don’t really think it’s the right thing to do on bachelor level.

Was it then the right choice to start the retail focus?

Yes, I think it was because it has been implemented in such a fantastic way. The retail industry is a bit special because academic education generally is not very common. The focus stems from the industry itself, it wants to raise the academic level. Its representatives came to SSE, which is accustomed to working with companies. It’s funded 100% externally by the retail industry, with ICA, Axelsson-Johnsson and the HM-foundation. It’s an extremely close collaboration with these companies. It was a way to help that specific industry. We hadn’t been sitting in our studies and thought “This is what we should do”, rather it grew from a dialogue. This is how the model should work. I have hundreds of ideas that I think would be good, but it’s important to see what demand there is out in society.

That’s a very good example of something the school likes to promote – the fact that Stockholm School of Economics has such a good cooperation with the business world. It’s not top-down, but the business world that helps build the school.

Yes, exactly. I actually think that this is an exceptional case. If there were other industries where the level of education was low and the demand for academic knowledge on a bachelor level was so large, then we would discuss it.

More generally, the knowledge society accelerates at an increasing speed and the compulsory level of knowledge of future business leaders keeps increasing. Today we have 3+2 years, with the bachelor that you’re currently in. When you’re done, there is a high probability you will proceed to study for a master’s degree. More and more students do this because they would notice later in life that with only a bachelor’s degree, if they’re interested in an international career, they’ll hit some kind of glass ceiling.

If you’re in a big international company or in consulting, then there are clear limits and you’ll need to get a master’s degree. We’ve really invested in this. Otherwise might as well only offer bachelor degrees and not offer master programs at all. Do you agree?

Yes, I wouldn’t say there’s much to argue about. Of course master’s degrees are important.

We don’t really know this for sure though. That’s what’s really interesting. This is part of the central issue of higher education. Earlier, we only offered the four year Civil Economist programme. It was in between a bachelor’s and master’s. It functioned very well. Then came the Bologna model, and with that we had to adopt a bachelor’s and a master’s programme. The idea is to increase mobility within Europe. Stockholm School of Economics has existed for 100 years, even more, the Bologna model came after our 100 year anniversary.

Before this, we only offered one education. The whole image of Stockholm School of Economics, and what it means to be one of our students, derived from these first 100 years. When you graduate, people will say “You went to SSE, you’re OK!” You will be able to get a good job almost instantly, because they will think: this is a good candidate with great grades who is ambitious with their studies, and all of these other positive attributes just because you have a background of studying at this school.

Employers don’t care that much right now, whether you’ve graduated with a bachelor’s or a master’s as it is right now. They just pick up talent. They’ll interview you and some other master’s student and think “Here’s somebody with a really strong profile. It doesn’t matter if they have only got a bachelor’s degree.” We don’t really know yet how employers think differently between bachelor’s and master’s students, especially not in Sweden, but also in a lot of other European countries. This is one of our big issues as a school. We have to compete on an international level for the master’s students. We have to persuade people to study at master’s level at all, and maybe they can get a really good job anyway.

Then we also have to persuade students that it’s better to study here then in London, Madrid or Milan. We want to internationalize, so we have to persuade the people in Milan, Paris and Barcelona to come to Stockholm School of Economics for their master’s. We have to go out and market ourselves internationally in a whole other way. We have to display ourselves and our brand on a global level.

What does this process look like?

We have to professionalize a lot more than we have in the past and work a lot smarter than we’ve done in the past. We’re a very small school, no larger than a normal secondary school here in Stockholm. We have to compete with schools that have twenty of thirty thousand students. Schools that are ten times bigger and obviously have a lot more resources than we do. We have to work a lot smarter and so we have to work through ambassador’s networks and work hard to make the students that graduate from here get really good jobs as we’ll then go up in the rankings.

We have to make sure that our students are very representative. If we don’t, we’ll lose. We have to get up in the rankings so that it spreads all over the world. If we’re in the top there, it’s automatic as we’re in that league. This will make us good representatives for the people who choose between Milan, Paris or London. Then we can connect this with other things that are attractive about Stockholm, why people should come here at all. It’s not only the school, but also that there’s something about Swedish management that can attract people. People find that you can live a good life here, to be able to combine work with family and free time. The fact that we have a well-functioning welfare system and beautiful nature just around the corner, that we have a very interesting business world with everyone from IKEA to the big global industrial companies. We are one of the most international economies in the world.

Then we also have Spotify and Skype, which lie just around the corner with an innovative culture. There are a lot of things that are very exciting and we think it’s better to point to the fact that we’re strongly integrated in this network.

Do you think that the school, and the other universities in Stockholm as well, could cooperate better internally, between KTH, Stockholm University, Södertörn and Konstfack?

Yes, absolutely. We already have a lot of cooperation with these schools. There is Stockholm’s Academic Forum but also other Stockholm-based initiatives.

I can’t say I see these initiatives today.

No, I know.

(Ulf laughs)

But they are still there, but it could be done much better, absolutely.

You mentioned in another interview that you wanted to invest in internationalisation. Right now at bachelor level only one fifth are allowed to go on an exchange. Is that something you want to increase or change?

Yes, I do. Today the bachelor program is in Swedish during the first two years. I think we should do a successive change. Our goal at master’s level is to have 50% international students and 50% Swedish students. The reason for this is that, if you have 50%, then when the international students come here, they will be integrated in a Swedish environment. This will allow them to learn Swedish norms, Swedish culture and get to feel that there is something special about it.

If you compare with an all-international school, it doesn’t matter whether it’s placed in Paris or Mallorca. They don’t have any specific roots to their respective countries. We get our finances through the School of Economics Association, from enterprises, from the Wallenberg, Söderberg and Persson families. They allocate money into the school because they want the students. This wouldn’t be possible if we internationalised too much, then we would lose the connection we have to these enterprises. We think that 50% is enough for the international students to get a sense of Swedish character while these international students also help create a dynamic and international environment for the Swedish students. Our goal is to sustain an international business school tradition that is placed in Sweden, rather than being a Swedish business school with an international profile, which is what it looks like today at master’s and PhD level. Then we have to review the bachelor’s programme so that we have the same level of internationalisation on both.

You mean that international students should be allowed to apply for the bachelor’s programme?

Well, of course they are allowed to apply. I think that in the short run, the programme should still be in Swedish, where we still have a niche.

I guess that for some subjects, like accounting or law, it’s difficult to substitute a Swedish base.

Yes, and if you stay here for five years it also makes our education more differentiated. It’s exciting, because, if we have, as I think we should, the first two years of studies are done in Swedish and then the last year should be much more internationalised. We want to increase the number students that go on an exchange. It’s like the third year is bit of a kick.

Another reason to keep it in Swedish, as it is right now, there were 4,300 applicants for the 300 places we offer. It’s on the same level as the top Ivy League schools. It’s as difficult to get into as Stanford. For our Retail Management course there are 1,600 applicants for 60 places, and there are also more girls that apply.

What’s the ratio there?

I don’t have the latest numbers, but there are more girls than boys there, and more boys than girls here.

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Continue reading part 3

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