Since 1981, the World Values Survey has posed a key question to more than 600,000 people: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?”
Figure 1. General trust over time. Source: World Values Survey 1981–2020
As Figure 1
The higher the level of education, the higher the level of trust,
A question that emerges is whether migrants’ general level of trust will increase after spending a period of time in a Nordic country. Education has been shown to be the most important of all the factors associated with the participants’ level of trust. The higher the level of education, the higher the level of trust, as illustrated in Figure 2.
Figure 2. General trust and levels of education (ISCED, International Standard Classification of Education).
For most people, education carries great significance. It’s not just meaningful for us as individuals, but also has consequences on a societal level – knowledge helps to build our societies.
Knowledge is acquired first and foremost through a good primary education. But both civil society and public resources – such as libraries, study groups and community colleges with easy access to a wide range of subjects – have had a complementary function to the traditional education system.
Knowledge and values create context
In his book Condorcets misstag (Condorcet’s Mistake) from 2017, author Per Molander analyses how the aggregate level of education in society – what’s known as human capital – affects economic growth. The book contains a summary of the positive effects of education, not just in terms of technical development but also as a means of strengthening democracy, lowering crime rates and corruption, and contributing to a more developed civil society with better health and increased trust:
“The length of education also has a clear effect on how much trust one has for other people – more education, more trust. Trust within a society is an indicator of the general state of things and can be tied to other variables, for example the rate of economic growth.”
Not understanding the underlying values of society makes it difficult to see the wider context – to see one’s own role as a part of society. For all of us, this ability does not come from our cumulative knowledge but from the willingness to acquire new knowledge and to combine the different components of knowledge. This has been referred to as judgement or as fronesis, the term coined by Aristotle.
In all likelihood there’s a similarity to Aaron Antonovsky’s concept of Sense of coherence (SOC) or a sense of context as well as our actions and our values: what we want to do with our acquired knowledge. In this manner, knowledge and action are connected in a way that was probably not part of Aristotle’s thinking, but is of distinct importance when it comes to today’s need for general education.
The migration and integration question can help us to shed light on the role of values – in a context of general education – and its potential to guide us to a more in-depth understanding of how integration works.
A person’s view of migration is linked to how much trust he or she has in other people. One can assume that the chain of effects looks as follows: security is a fundamental prerequisite, which, if it exists, increases trust. With trust comes tolerance for people who think in a different way. And in order for all of this to take place, education emerges as a strong contributing factor.
Increased trust over time
The World Value Survey includes a special research area on migrants – The Migrant World Values Survey (MWVS) – which has collected extensive data about trust and how migrants are viewed in Sweden. Through the MWVS, researchers have been able to follow how people who come to Sweden from low-trust countries slowly but surely increase their trust year by year.
In Denmark, an important study has measured how trust changes over time among migrants from outside Europe. The trust has been shown to increase gradually: trust increases for every year spent living in the country.
The results show that people from Somalia and Afghanistan had the lowest levels of education of all migrants
The underlying question is whether there’s another way of thinking in high-trust societies compared with low-trust societies. Preliminary research has indicated that to be the case. In the report “With migrants’ voices”, it was concluded that migrants to Sweden from low-trust societies have increased their level of general trust compared with the trust level in their countries of origin. However, they still remain at a lower level than the majority population in Sweden. The term “majority population” describes the overall population, including migrants from Western countries.
As previously mentioned, education is a building block of trust. Different opinions have featured in the debate about non-European migrants’ level of education, including the notion that many are well-educated. Others believe that migrants in general are less well-educated than they themselves claim to be.
In 2019, Statistics Sweden – the state agency tasked with collecting population data – analysed the level of education among migrants who came to Sweden between 2014 and 2017. The results show that people from Somalia and Afghanistan had the lowest levels of education of all migrants. More than 60 percent either lacked education or had at most gone to comprehensive school. The corresponding percentage for migrants from Eritrea was some 50 percent and for migrants from Iraq and Syria around 40 percent.
The numbers show that half of Eritrean migrants had gone to upper secondary school, of which some had gone on to further or higher education such as university studies. For the migrants from Afghanistan and Somalia, the corresponding proportion was 35–40 percent.
Overestimated level of education
The Statistics Sweden data do have a clear weakness. When the statisticians did not have information about a person’s level of education, they instead employed a method called imputation, in which an estimate is used to replace missing values. This was the case in about a fourth of the cases between 2014–2017, which means that the official statistics about these migrant groups are significantly less reliable than the statistics about the rest of the population. The values used to replace the missing information are based on the values of the entire migrant group. Thus, it may well be the case that the quarter of respondents with missing values largely come from countries with poor education systems.
The average length of education was 3.8 years for Afghan migrants and 6.8 years for Syrian migrants
The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, an employer organisation, runs the website Ekonomifakta.se, which has gone through data from UNDP and the Swedish Migration Board. Looking at the five non-European countries that account for the highest number of migrants to Sweden, the summary showed that the average length of education was 5.1 years. More specifically, the average was 3.8 years for Afghan migrants and 6.8 years for Syrian migrants.
The report “With migrants’ voices” was based on the answers of 6,500 migrants to questions about how they view their lives in Sweden. During the autumn of 2019, an additional 1,400 people took part, bringing the total to 7,900.
The participants were asked to estimate their own education level using the nine-point ISCED (International Standard Classification of Education) scale. A person who cannot read nor write scores zero, while a person who has a doctorate scores nine. As studies of the Swedish population as a whole have used the same scale, the migrants’ own estimates can be used to compare not just with the averages in their home countries but also with the average in Sweden.
Intriguingly, the migrants estimated their own level of education to be lower than what was reported for migrant groups from the same countries by the Swedish Public Employment Service. As there is an inbuilt incentive when seeking work to exaggerate or overstate one’s own education, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Swedish Public Employment Service data paint a rosier picture.
Few have completed higher education
Our decision to interview 92 people was driven by our desire to obtain a more in-depth understanding of the level of higher education among the migrant respondents. The interviewees were given the opportunity to describe their education in their home country. The study confirmed that the proportion of people with a university or college degree was relatively small – even though the selection of interviewees was in no way statistically validated in terms of age, gender or country of origin.
Almost half (46 percent) of the remaining 6,000 participants scored between zero and three on the ISCED scale
Several of the people who had told the employment service that they had pursued higher education went on to tell us that they had not, in actual fact, undertaken the studies in question. However, several had completed further education in Sweden.
Some 2,000 of the 7,900 participants were excluded from the analysis because of incomplete answers. Almost half (46 percent) of the remaining 6,000 participants scored between zero and three on the ISCED scale. In other words, they had no education at all or had low-level education equivalent to comprehensive school
But why is general education important?
Even if one undertakes vocational training, there are other parts of integration that are key to becoming part of and feeling included in Swedish society. If a person does not have even the most basic level of education, they will encounter problems with acquiring essential information. Parents may also experience difficulties with helping their children to acquire essential information. Our results seem to indicate that some migrants are not aware of the fact that vocational skills are not enough to be able to function in a complex social structure, such as Swedish society.
We were initially positively surprised when our data showed that non-European migrants generally felt at home in Sweden: 57 percent felt at home in Sweden and 55 percent liked living here. Many of them also took pride in feeling at home both in Sweden and in their country of origin.
We asked the survey respondents to use a ten-point scale to tell us what was the best and the worst things about Sweden versus their country of origin. The list included about twenty different items, of which freedom of speech was the most appreciated aspect of life in Sweden compared with life in the country of origin. This was closely followed by better opportunities for education as well as the possibility to make one’s voice heard, to vote and to state an opinion. Many also expressed appreciation for being able to exercise their religion. The worst aspects of living in Sweden were the difficulties with finding work and housing.
Subject areas where norms and knowledge differ
Upon delving deeper, we identified patterns that showed how difficult it can be to understand norms and values that one has not grown up with – norms and values that are considered key to true integration. When asked about laws and rules, the majority of participants said it was easy to learn and grasp them. When we later posed questions about specific Swedish laws, for example pertaining to divorce, abortion and homosexuality, many of the participants expressed a strong dislike for the legislation in question, even though Swedish law clearly protects these rights.
When we asked how justifiable sex before marriage, divorce, abortion and homosexuality were on a ten-point scale (where 0 means “never justifiable” and 10 means “always justifiable”), we obtained the following results. In the column on the right, the average responses for the overall population are included.
- Sex before marriage 3.7 Sweden: 8.9
- Divorce 3.9 Sweden: 8.6
- Abortion 2.9 Sweden: 8.2
- Homosexuality 3.3 Sweden: 8.6
Thus, large differences exist between migrants and the majority population in terms of what is regarded as acceptable.
We also asked factual rather than moral questions about Swedish law:
- Is it legal in Sweden to have sex with someone if you are not sure that the other person wants to? (56 percent correctly answered “no”)
- Is a person over the age of 18 allowed to have sex with someone who is younger than 15? (71 percent correctly answered “no”)
- Are you allowed to get married if you are younger than 18? (72 percent correctly answered “no”)
- Can you have an abortion in the early stage of pregnancy? (25 percent correctly answered “yes”)
- Do you have the right to say no to sex with your wife or husband if you are married? (31 percent correctly answered “yes”)
- Do you have the right to say no to sex with someone whether you are married or not? (34 percent correctly answered “yes”)
There’s widespread awareness in Sweden about the ages of sexual consent. A person who is 18 or older cannot by law have sex with a person who’s younger than 15. In our study, however, almost one in three participants answered either “don’t know” or “yes” when asked whether it would be legal for an adult to have sex with someone younger than 15. Similarly, almost a third did not know that one cannot marry before the age of 18. Only 31 percent knew that you have the right to say no to sex with your spouse. Furthermore, the Swedish law of consent – which stipulates that sex without explicit consent constitutes rape – was not widely known: only 56 percent knew that you cannot have sex with a person without their consent.
For example, only a quarter of the participants were aware of the right to have an abortion in early pregnancy
So even though our participants believed themselves to be familiar with Swedish law, their actual level of knowledge was low. For example, only a quarter of the participants were aware of the right to have an abortion in early pregnancy. The findings illustrate the importance of not just teaching school children about academic subjects, but also adding knowledge about family and family-planning law. In Sweden, Swedish law applies – but it only prevails if people know and understand the legislation.
Low motivation to study
From the in-depth interviews we were able to conclude that vocational training was often referred to as higher education. We spoke with car mechanics, carpenters and air-conditioning salesmen – all with short vocational training – whose level of education had been categorised as a bachelor’s degree or an equivalent degree. We also noted that many of the participants who said they had studied English, in some cases for as long as nine years, could not speak English at anything more than a rudimentary level. Often, by way of explanation, they said: “I understand English, but I don’t speak it”. One of these respondents nevertheless expressed a strong desire to work as an English teacher in Sweden.
There were other interviews that surprised us in positive ways. One of these participants was a teenage single mother who spoke perfect Swedish after four years in the country and worked full time teaching other migrants Swedish. She also commuted 100 km twice a week to take evening courses in law. Her aim was to become a lawyer specialised in family law. Compared with our overall findings, this woman’s dedication to studying stood out. A significant majority of participants between 35 and 40 with low levels of education expressed only a lukewarm interest in furthering their education. For many of them, their ambitions did not go beyond completing the language courses offered for free to all migrants in Sweden.
We interviewed several people who, despite not yet having turned 50, were resolutely intent on relying on social benefits instead of employment
In the age bracket of 40-50 years, the general picture of low ambition and little drive was even clearer. For many participants, repeated and unrewarded attempts to find work had without doubt undermined the will to study. We interviewed several people who, despite not yet having turned 50, were resolutely intent on relying on social benefits instead of employment. What’s more, many of the women in this age bracket had never been employed in their home country. We had asked if they intended to work in the future. The most frequent answer was along the lines of “yes, as a cleaner” or “within care of the elderly”. We found it hard to tell whether this kind of response was genuine or whether the women felt it was the right, or the expected, thing to say – it may have been a bit of both.
Among the older participants, there were, however, exceptions. One 70-year-old woman, who had once taught mathematics at university, now taught Swedish to new migrants. In her interview, she told us that life felt more meaningful when she had a job. She mentioned feeling needed, especially when comparing herself with her partner, of a similar age, who mostly sat at home and watched TV all day.
Although these examples do not provide a representative view of the entire sample of participants, they illustrate an important point: there is great variability in the attitudes of our interviewees. This variability is not always as apparent when the responses are reduced to averages.
Thoughts about children and work
In our survey questions, we asked the participants how many children they wanted. We pursued this topic further in the interviews by asking the respondents about their thoughts on starting a family, raising children and combining child-rearing and work. How would the latter be achievable, seen from a practical point of view?
Among the groups we studied, Somali migrants stood out. Compared with other migrant groups, the Somali respondents already had more children on average and wanted more children in the future. A 27-year-old mother-of-three, who was open to working fulltime as a cleaner, said she wanted more children – as many as ten in total. She saw no problems combining remunerated work with having a large number of children, and she saw no practical challenges with housing, transport and the children’s education.
As for the difficulties of combining a large family with employment, we generally encountered two types of answers, the first being the “no problem” attitude. For example, a man from Damascus – one of few participants with a bachelor’s degree from his country of origin – pointed out that in Syria he’d known several doctors and lawyers with five or even six children. He also mentioned that the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who is a doctor and a politician, has seven children.
The second type of frequent answer was that reality would catch up with even the most ardent of big-family proponents. In Somalia, where clan and family members may support parents in raising their children, having many children and working at the same time may be possible. However, Somali migrants in Sweden may not be able to rely on social support from family members to the same extent, as this is not common practice. After a certain number of children, our participants pointed out, the practical obstacles may make themselves known. When we mentioned the 27-year-old who wanted ten children to another young Somali woman, that woman laughed and said: “She’ll soon realise that it won’t be possible.”
The desire to work
All our participants thought that having a job is important, which we perceived to have been said with honesty; the responses felt genuine. To be able to keep oneself occupied, support oneself and not having to rely on social services were all important to the participants. An unemployed man said that despite being broke for several months, he would not claim the social benefits he’s entitled to by law. He said: “I don’t want to. I’d be ashamed. All I want is to work”. Instead, he preferred to borrow money from friends and family.
Despite the generally strong desire to work, many mothers below the age of 50 expressed having lost their motivation to do so. Others had not been able to embrace, or even understand, the idea of a society based on solidarity, in which both rights and responsibilities have laid the foundation for the welfare state.
Several of the people we spoke to took pride in going to the “Competence Centre” (which, among other things, may aid migrants with internships and further education) every morning to “work”. What they enjoyed was not only getting paid, but also putting their time to use for something other than their own family. Work offered identity and meaning.
We asked the respondents why it was important to have a job here in Sweden, where it’s not needed to get by financially. Many tried to avoid the question. Nevertheless, our interpretation of their responses is that having a job, and earning money, is about freedom. Work becomes a symbol for the freedom to decide for yourself what to do with your life.
For many of the migrants who have arrived here as adults, it may not be realistic to expect them to complete long-term education. It certainly isn’t realistic for women with several children. This is where efforts from civil society are of major importance in order to help the next generation to make decisions for themselves about education, employment and family.
In addition to asking what migrants know about Sweden, we should perhaps be focusing on how to foster curiosity about society’s norms and values. Curiosity is a prerequisite for acquiring knowledge.
Were we to reflect on what may be done to improve the present situation, we could start by reaching two important political decisions. Firstly, all children should be required to attend Swedish pre-schools. This would make it easier for children to learn Swedish, and with it, become integrated in Swedish society from an early age. Secondly, what’s known as “progressive” child support ought to be removed. This system entails that a family receives increasing benefits for each additional child. While it encourages people to have many children, it may also have an additional effect: if the sum of these benefits exceeds what a migrant earns from working, this system may selectively hinder migrant women’s inclusion in Swedish society.
Translated by Ann Törnkvist