Traditions in Retrospect

The Swedish Universities

Uppsala University is the oldest university in Scandinavia. When it was founded in 1477, it was the northernmost institute of higher education in the world. During the Middle Ages, Uppsala University had three faculties: theology, law and philosophy. There was no medical faculty at the time. We do not know much about the studies pursued or the ceremonies celebrated at the medieval university, but we have good reason to assume that there were both degree conferment ceremonies and ceremonies for installation of professors. The religious and political unrest of the early sixteenth century, including the Reformation etc., swept away the foundations for the existence of this institution, however, and beginning around 1530 “Uppsala University” existed only in the mind. It was reinstated in reality in 1595, at which point a great deal of effort was invested in giving the university an identity, and proving that it belonged amongst the learned circles of European academia. The excellent extant source documentation tells us that degree conferment ceremonies were held in January 1600. The seventeenth century was an expansive time for Sweden in terms of foreign policy and military strength, and the country began to outgrow its single university. Two more were added, one in Dorpat (today Tartu, Estonia) in 1632 and one in Åbo (today Turku in Finland) in 1640. The Lund University was founded in 1668, as a step in the ultimate “Swedification” of the provinces of Skåne, Halland and Blekinge, which were finally won from Denmark in the 1650s. As Estonia was later ceded to Russia, there were three Swedish universities in the eighteenth century: Uppsala, Åbo and Lund. There was a fourth one as well - Greifswald in Pomerania, but it was entirely a German language, Germanic-culture institution.

Major developments in ceremonies to the present time

Let us now examine the most important ceremonies at Swedish universities in the past. From the 17th century, the universities had four faculties: the faculties of theology, law, medicine and philosophy. There were relatively few professors, by present standards. Uppsala, an unusually well-endowed institution, had 19 professorial chairs in 1632 at the time of the death of Swedish King Gustav II Adolf. Moreover, there were relatively few students at Swedish universities in the past. In the mid-seventeenth century Uppsala University only had a few hundred students at any given time, and even a century later in the time of Linnaeus, in the heyday of Uppsala University, the total student body numbered only about 800.

When a student was accepted at the university, he was subjected to a “deposition”, quite a crude custom the symbols of which included rams’ horns, asses’ ears, etc. New students were literally sanded, tarred and feathered, etc. All of this symbolised their leaving his “crude” past. Today, there are customs that are the successors of the “deposition”, but as such ceremonies, often rowdy and quite noisy, are conducted primarily by student organisations, they are not the object of attention in this booklet. Formal matriculation ceremonies are not common at Swedish universities, as opposed to at Danish universities and elsewhere.

It was common in the past for a professor to be installed in his chair at a formal ceremony, an “installation”. This ceremony was adopted from the medieval church and is today used as an opportunity to spread information to the public about research activities. The Vice-Chancellor of a Swedish university was also granted his position at a special ceremony. In the past, the position rotated amongst the professors at each Swedish university, with a new Vice-Chancellor taking over every semester. Today, all Swedish universities still have the inauguration ceremony.

The institution of the “public defence” of a thesis permeated the medieval university culture, and continued throughout most of the nineteenth century. The main emphasis was not on the content of a thesis, but on the student’s ability to show that he had learned to argue and to defend what he, or in many cases his teacher, had written. The rite had fixed parts: the respondent was the individual defending a thesis, and the opponents were to criticise the work in minute detail. Although we still have the institution of the public defence in Sweden, the ceremony has been greatly simplified.

As mentioned above, the main occasions of celebration in Swedish academia have always been “degree conferment” ceremonies. Such ceremonies are alive and well at all Swedish universities and colleges today, and are the main focus of this booklet.

Until this century, the conferment of the degree of Doctor of Theology was not a frequent occasion. The degree of Doctor of Theology was bestowed only by the King, who is the head of the Swedish church, upon deserving clergymen, often bishops. Most frequently, this ceremony took place at the time of royal coronations, or the celebration of anniversary years of universities. Another distinguishing feature of this ceremony was that the person appointed to confer the degrees was not a university teacher, as is common at other doctoral degree conferment ceremonies, but the Archbishop of Uppsala or the Bishop of Lund. Such a degree conferment ceremony can be most readily compared with the awarding of a royal order. In older times, degree conferment ceremonies for Doctors of Law were also often of the nature of an honour bestowed by the ruler, although they might also be associated with the conferring of degrees. Degree conferment ceremonies for Doctors of Philosophy in medicine were also an unusual phenomenon for a long time, but the international success of Linnaeus at Uppsala University in the eighteenth century (he was Professor at the Faculty of
Medicine there) marked the turn towards this becoming a more common event.

All such degree conferment ceremonies at “faculties of higher learning” (i.e. theology, medicine and law) took place at irregular intervals, determined by necessity. In contrast, degree conferment ceremonies at the fourth faculty, the faculty of philosophy, took place at regular intervals, once every third year. Originally, in the eighteenth century, each of the three state universities, Uppsala, Åbo and Lund, were intended to circulate, on each year. However, it proved to be impossible to follow this strategy in the long run.

The custom at the faculties of theology, law and medicine was to award each individual who was receiving a degree with a hat, while at the faculty of philosophy, each “magister” as the individual was called, received a crown of laurels, a custom still followed. In the late nineteenth century the meaning of the title magister changed, and these degree conferment ceremonies became known as doctoral degree conferment ceremonies even at the faculty of philosophy.

During the nineteenth century two new types of doctorates were introduced. The first, introduced early in the century, was that of “jubilee doctor”. This degree was awarded to all those who had been awarded their doctoral degrees fifty years earlier. Each fifty-year celebrant was invited back to his old university to receive a diploma and - at the faculty of philosophy - a new crown of laurels. The second custom began in Uppsala in 1839 and was based on a pattern imported from abroad, the establishment of “doctors of philosophy honoris causa”. From the beginning this meant that the title “magister honoris causa” and later “doctor honoris causa” was awarded to individuals on the basis of merits other than the formal earning of the degree. 

In the late nineteenth century, the degree system underwent major changes at the Swedish universities. The main ceremonial change was that degree conferment ceremonies gradually lost a great deal of their pomp and circumstance, in fact one might say that between 1877 and 1935 there was an extreme lull in this respect. Since 1935, with only a few exceptions, however, degree conferment ceremonies have been held annually. Each university also has annual festivities for all those who have received doctoral degrees at any of its faculties that year.

What may be regarded as typically Swedish in terms of academic ceremonies?

This section summarizes all that may be regarded as particularly Swedish in terms of academic festivities. It should be borne in mind that Swedish and Finnish traditions are often similar, because from a historical point of view Finland is part of the Swedish cultural sphere.

Four phenomena can be distinguished with regard to degree conferment ceremonies:

Elsewhere, an individual, for instance a foreign head of state or a prominent politician, may be awarded the title of doctor honoris causa at a special ceremony held entirely for him or her. In Sweden, such individual degree conferment ceremonies are never held to confer honorary doctorates. Also, as a rule (with the occasional exception of Umeå University) honorary doctorates and traditional doctoral degrees are awarded at one and the same degree conferment ceremony. The concept of “jubilee doctor” is also peculiar to Sweden.

Thirdly, Sweden, like Finland, uses the symbol of the crown of laurels at degree conferment ceremonies for Doctors of Philosophy. Also, once a person has been awarded the crown of laurels at a degree conferment ceremony, he or she has the right also to wear the “doctoral hat” used at the faculty of philosophy.

Fourthly, in Sweden degree conferment is individual. This means that each person being awarded a degree is handed his or her insignia personally by the person appointed to confer the degree and is, for one moment, the absolute focus of attentions. Group degrees are never conferred in Sweden.

In this context, it may be mentioned that the dress code in Sweden is somewhat different from that at universities elsewhere. Although a foreign guest may often wear the dress of his or her university at a Swedish ceremony, it is always wise to enquire, as customs differ from one Swedish university to the next. Some require full evening dress, with a black or white waistcoat, while others also accept a dark suit. One rule of thumb is that a black bow tie is never worn in Sweden at an academic ceremony or the banquet held in conjunction with it.

It should be pointed out that in the past participation in the ceremonies were required to be formally confermed doctor and installed as professor. However, that is not the case today. A non-confermed doctor is as much a doctor as those participating in the conferment ceremony and a professor who did not attend the installation ceremony is to the same extent a professor as the ones present.

It may also be added that the matriculation, or reception of new students, is not a formal occasion arranged by Swedish universities today. Instead, new students are welcomed in simple, informal ways, at information meetings about studying at the given university or college. And the student union organizations themselves organize the fun and games associated with becoming a university student.

Last modified: 2024-01-19