Article 7: Study Associations – Functions and Challenges.

Study Associations

Study circles in Sweden are arranged by ten independent study associations. All study associations in Sweden arrange about 280 000 study circles every year and more than 300 000 culture programmes (the Swedish population is just a little more than nine million).

As we have shortly described in previous articles in this series, state supported study circles in Sweden are organized by a number of study associations. The main character of these study associations is that they are themselves non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and established by other non-governmental organisations. That means that they are independent of the state, with the exception that they have to comply with the conditions for getting state subsidies. The main condition is that their main activities have to be study circles and that they have to approve of every study circle leader. The study associations also have to accept that the government subsidies shall aim at:
1. Support activities that contribute to the strengthening and developing of the democracy.
2. Contribute to making it possible for people to influence their life situations and creating engagement to take part in the development of the society.
3. Contribute to compensate for education gaps and to raise the level of enlightenment and education in society.
4. Contribute to broadening of the interest for and the participation in the cultural life of Sweden

The state support
The state support for study circles started in a small scale a hundred years ago, in 1912. In order to get that support, study circles had to be registered and arranged by a national organisation. That meant that from that year study circles started to be more organized. Before 1912 there were also study circles, but they were arranged by the participants themselves and not registered. The first Swedish study circle that became well known was the one that was reported about 1902 by Oscar Olsson (see article 2 in this series).
The organisations that were accepted by the government to recieve state support for their study circles developed into those study associations that exist today. The first, ”Workers’ Educational Association”, was established already in 1912. Soon there were also other early study associations – for farmers, for members in various Christian Churches and for the temperance movements. Later other study associations were established, for example, one owned by the Swedish universities which started in 1933 (the only study association which has not been established by non-governmental organisations). Also today new study associations are born, for example a Muslim study association in 2008, while several old ones have merged with other study associations or been reorganized. One or two study associations have disappeared.
However, in general study associations have proved to be sustainable. One reason is their foundation in non-governmental organisations, which have an interest of keeping their study associations in good health. Another reason – probably the most important – is the efficiency and popularity of the study circle. That popularity means among other things, that study associations also have a good reputation among most political leaders.

Non-Governmental Organisations
The study circle tradition developed from the popular movements and organisations that were founded in Sweden at the end of 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. They were mainly the workers’ unions, political organisations, temperance societies, farmers´ movements and other organisations.
Most of the individual members in those organisations were at that time poor and had anly a few years of schooling. In order to improve life for their members, the organisations started to promote study circles as a cheap way of improve their education. The members at that time often chosed to study Swedish language, mathematics and other school subjects.
Nowadays the members in those organisations are no longer poor and they often have high education. However, many of them still joj study circles, but now they study more specific topics, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act within worker’s unions.
During the last hundred years many more organisations have been established, both big ones and small. In general, every Swede is a member of at least a few non-governmental organisations. It could for example be a labor union, maybe a political party or another political organisation, a housing cooperative, an organisation for senior citizens, a nature or environmental society, an immigrant organisation etc. Those who are religious are often also members in one of the various Christian, Muslim or other religious communions. There are also social and solidarity organisations of many various kinds, for example a Swedish-Chinese Friendship Society. And of course, there are a huge number of societies and organisations for all kinds of interests or hobbies, no matter if you are interested in theatre, folk dance, folk music etc or in collecting stamps, or…
Non-governmental organisations are mainly financed by membership fees paid by their members. However, they also get some economic support by the municipalities. In Sweden, active and strong non-governmental organisations, established by the members themselves, are regarded as one of the basic foundations for a democratic and harmonious society.
There are thousands of local organisations in Sweden. Sometimes the same kind of  local organisations are established in many places around the country and then they often unite in one national federation or association with local branches. There are hundreds of different national federations and they could have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands members. Around 250 of the national organisations are member organisations in one of the ten study associations. Many other organisations have a close cooperation with study associations at the local level.
To be a member organisation in one of the study associations means that the organisation can exert an influence on its study association, mainly by having a close contact. For example, the individual members in the local branch of one of the nature organisations might want to start a study campaign about an environmental problem. If they are affiliated to one of the study associations they ask its local branch to arrange study circles, public lectures etc.
The member organisations also send representatives to the annual meetings within the study association. The annual meeting is the highest decision-making body in every organisation. For example, it is only the annual meeting that can formally found a new organisation or decide to shut it down. The most important task during each annual meeting is to elect the executive committee for the next year or years. During the annual meetings the representatives from the member organisations also decide upon the overall planning for the comming year.
The member organisations also define the profile for each of the study associations. For example, the ”Study Promotion Association” mainly has nature and environmental organisations as member organisations. That means that this association arrange more study circles about nature and environmental issues than other study associations.

Study Associations Today
Today there are ten different study associations in Sweden. Each study association has a number of member organisations as their owners (except for the ”Folk University”, which is owned by the Swedish universities). For example, ”Workers’ Educational Association” has about 60 member organisations.
Each study association has a national office. Then all of them have local or regional branches around the country. The largest study associations have more than a hundred local branches, while smaller ones have a dozen or so regional branches.
In most study associations the local branches are semi-independent and have their own annual meetings, with representatives from the local units of their member organisations. During annual meetings, the representatives elect the executive committee for their local branch and also confirm the planning for the comming year. Depending on which study association it is, during the meeting the representatives also might elect those who are going to represent their local branch at the next national annual meeting (almost always it will be some of the members in the executive committee).
The national annual meeting take place every year in some study associations or every other year in others. During those meetings, representatives from the national member organisations meet and in some study associations also representatives from the local branches.

National Offices
The national offices are responsible for supporting their local branches with the overall leadership, with different kinds of policies and guidelines, with developing projects, with administrative and economical tools and routines, with study guidance, and with conferences, seminars and training courses for the employees. If needed the study associations might also produce books in fields where there are a lack of good books. Some of them even have a special relationship with one of the publishing houses.
National conferenses are important in all study associations. When there are local or regional offices within the same association, there is also a strong need of forums where employees from all over the country can meet face to face, discuss mutual problems, share ideas and experiences with branches in other parts of the country, make plans for the future etc.
The national offices are responsible for recieving state subsidies and each year to report about how the state subsidies have been used. They distribute most of the subsidies among its local branches according to how many study circles each local branch organized last years. The local branches also get subsidies from most counties and local municipalities and part of their income consists of fees paid by study circle participants. Because the subsidies from municipalities varies a lot, the economy among the local branches also vary. For some of them, about one third of their total income consists of state subsidies, about one third of regional and local subsidies and about one third of fees paid by study circle participants.

Local Branches
It is the local or regional branches that actually organize the study circles, recruit study circle leaders, give them introductions and offer them special traning-courses. Training-courses for study circle leaders are essential, in order to get leaders who can encourage and stimulate each participant to be an active participant, who asks questions, express his or her opinions, who shares his or her experiences with the others etc. Each study association forms their own training-courses, often both basic courses and continuing courses. Normally each course is quite short, for example a weekend course (see also article 7).
The local branches vary a lot when it comes both to size and to what kinds of study circles they are arranging. The largest local branches might have 20-30 employees while the smallest only have a few. The largest local branches, in the bigger cities, arrange study circles about all kinds of subjects while the smaller branches might specialize in a few areas.
The local branches also arrange various cultural events, such as lectures, debates, concerts and exhibitions. For example, a local branch of a study association might arrange an evening lecture about China and then invite those attendents who want to learn more to join a study circle about China.
The local branches have a more or less close cooperation with the local units of those organisations that own the study association, the member organisations. Often they also cooperate with other local organisations or societies. The local branches of the study associations arrange study circles that are specially designed for the individual members of those organisations. For example studies about how to protect the nature for members in nature organisations and studies about the European Union for members in political parties. Many experienced people in member organisations also volunteer as study circle leaders, often without demanding any payment.
Beside all the study circles within organisations the local branches also offer study circles to people in general: in music and arts, in many different languages, in computer training, history, culture etc… Study circles play an important role in preserving traditional arts and handicrafts and in promoting cultural interest and knowledge among large groups of people. Another important task is to contribute to the protection of the environment, mainly by encouraging people to learn more about nature. Another overall important task is to help people to master new information technology. For example, many local branches in all study associations arrange study circles about computers and Internet for senior citizens.
Some study circles are organized by the participants themselves. For example, people in a neighbourhood could arrange their own study circle about gardening. The most popular form of self-organized study circles are various music groups who study and practise together. In those cases, they choose a study circle leader among themselves, but they might borrow a place where to meet at one of the study associations. Particularly rock music groups are in great need of well sound-absorbing places where they can practise and many local branches of study associations have invested in such buildings.

Great Variety
The study circles and other activities can be very different from one local branch to another, even within the same study association. One local unit might for example have many study circles in foreign languages, but none at all in art. Instead, another local unit in the same association, next to the first one, might have specialized in art studies and have not a single language study circle.
The reasons for such variations are mainly two. First, there is the local competition between the different study associations, which makes it necessary for each study association to adjust the activities to what is possible. Secondly, and most important, are the people employed at the local offices. For example, if you find a local unit with many study circles for amateur theatre groups, then you can be sure that there is at least one employee who has a strong personal interest for theatre.
Overall, one of the main characteristics of the study associations is the deep personal engagement among its employees. People working for study associations normally stay until they get retired, sometimes longer. One of the reasons is that they often get the chance to work with those issues they are personally most interested in, for example music.  
Another reason is that people feel that they can work with tasks which are good for people and for society. It is not uncommon to meet employees in study associations who have quit more well-paid jobs to be able to work in an organisation where they can feel morally satisfied with their work.
The variety between local units is also observable when it comes to marketing of study circles. Members within various organisations often get information about planned study circles from news letters or meetings. People in general are often informed by advertisements in local newspepaers or posters on public bulletin boards. In the big cities study associations might publish a catalogue of their study circles and other activities once or twice a year. Such catalogues might have information about hundreds of study circles. Of course, nowadays each unit within the study association also has a web page with information of its activities.
However, notwithstanding all modern information tools, the most efficient marketing is still words spread among people. Satisfied participants, who talk about their study circles, are more important than catalogues or web pages.

Workers’ Educational Association
The workers’ unions and the political parties to the left – the social democrats and the communists – were among the first organisations to arrange study circles. In 1912 they set up the first study association, ”Workers’ Educational Association”. Since the beginning it has been the largest study association in Sweden and during 2012 it celebrates its 100 years anniversary.
The basic aim for ”Workers’ Educational Association” is to promote general knowledge and cultural exaltation for the working class and particularly to give the most to those who have been least fortu- nate. However, it also get participants from all levels of society. One of the main tasks for the association is ”cultural democracy”, which is equal rights for everyone to enjoy culture of all kinds. It is also equal rights to be part of the creation of cultural values in the society.  
The ”Workers’ Educational Association” has about 60 member organisations. Among these are the Social Democratic Party and the Left Party (earlier the Communist Party). There are also the main organisations affiliated or with close cooperation with the Social Democratic Party, such as the blue-collar labor unions and the Consumer Cooperative Association. Other member organisations are several immigrant organisations, the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society etc.
In 2010, ”Workers’ Educational Association” arranged almost 75 000 study circles with more than half a million participants. In addition it arranged more than 10 000 other study groups with more than 125 000 participants (that are study groups which are shorter than ordinary study circles). The ”Workers’ Educational Association” also arranged almost 75 000 culture programmes (lectures, concerts, exhibitions etc) with almost four and a half million participants.

Adult School
The second largest study associations, the ”Adult School”, is affiliated with the Liberal political party, the Center political party, the Federation of Swedish Farmers and many other organisations. It arranges more than 50 000 study circles every year with more than 200 000 participants.
The history of the ”Adult School” began 90 years ago when a group of people in a small village started a study circle they called ”The home of free thoughts”. It was a provocative name for the local establishment in the village and for the local priest in the established State Church. However, soon study circles became more and more common in the countryside.
Because of its cooperation with the Federation of Swedish Farmers, the ”Adult School” has more local branches in the countryside than any other study association. In 2011 it had almost 180 local branches. However, after a re-organisation it will soon have only 32 local branches, each one covering a much larger area than before.

Study Promotion Association
The ”Study Promotion Association” is the third largest study association. It has its background in the Swedish countryside. The founding organisation was the ”Young Farmers Association”, established in 1918. The purpose of that association was to enrich life in countryside, both economically and culturally. The methods from the very beginning were study circles and various cultural activities.
In 1959 there was a re-organisation and the ”Study Promotion Association” was founded as an independent association with several member organisations, most of them in one way or other working with nature or environment. Today, ”Study Promotion Association” has 19 member organisations. Among these are the ”Swedish Society for Nature Conservation” and other environmental organisations, the ”Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management”,  the ”Swedish Outdoor Association”, the ”Swedish Touring Club”, and an umbrella organisation for music and culture associations.
Nowadays, the ”Study Promotion Association” has its strongest base in the bigger cities and study circles for young farmers are rare. In 2010, it arranged more than 40 000 study circles with more than 230 000 participants. It also organized almost 7 000 other study groups with almost 60 000 participants. The association arranged almost 50 000 culture programmes with more than two million participants.

Folk University
In 1917 a ”Folk University Society” was established with the aim to give lectures, seminars and courses for people who had not studied at universities. In the 1930:s teachers and students at the Swedish universities also started to arrange study circles for ordinary people. They had the ambition to spread knowledge and research results from the universities to people in general.  
In 1942 those studying activities were organized in one umbrella organisation, the ”Folk University”, which in 1947 became a new study association and became entitled to get state grants. While other study associations were founded by non-govermental organisations, the ”Folk University” was founded by the universities. Today it is organized in five separate sections, one for each of the main universities. Together they have around 40 local branches.
In 2010 the ”Folk University” arranged about 20 000 study circles with approximately 130 000 participants. It also arranged ab0ut 22 000 lectures and cultural programmes with around 1.3 million participants.

Other Study Associations
There are six more study associations in Sweden, each one with its own founding organisations. Three of them are religious, two Christian study associations and one Muslim.
 The largest of the Christian study association was established 1930. Earlier it was affiliated to the Swedish Christian Church. Today, that study association still has a profound Christian character, but it is more open to cooperation with other organisations and with a broader selection of study circle subjects. For example, about ten years ago it started to cooperate with some Muslim organisations and to arrange study circles about Islam for muslims.
It also merged with two other study associations 2002 and 2004. Among its 30 national member organisations most are Christian or with a humanitarian aim.
That association is organized in eight regions, with study circles and other activites in most of the 290 municipalities in Sweden. It has about 450 full-time or part-time employees and about 13 000 leaders for study circles and cultural groups. In 2010, the association arranged almost 19 000 study circles with more than 130 000 participants. It also arranged almost 10 000 other study groups with more than 160 000 participants and it arranged almost 35 000 culture programmes with more than two million participants.
 The Muslim study association is the smallest of the three religious study associations. It is a new association and started formally 2008. However, as mentioned above, several years before study circles for muslims were a part of the largest Christian study association. When those study circles became more common, the Muslim organisations decided to establish their own study association. When the separation took place, in 2008, several of those employees who before used to work with the Islamic study circles moved to the new study association.
Its nine member organisations are all Muslim and have been established in the interest of Muslim immigrants to Sweden during the last twenty or thirty years, mainly from Middle East.
The Muslim study association is organized in five regions, each one with its own executive committee. It has about 25 full-time employees and a number of study circle leaders. Some of the areas it has focused on during the last years have been issues about Islamic peace culture, young peopels participation in society, equal rights for everybody and popular attitydes towards Muslims in society.
In 2010, the Muslim study association arranged more than 1 600 study circles and 1 300 other study groups with  altogether more than 16 000 participants. The association arranged more than 3 000 culture programmes with more than 140 000 participants.
 The other Christian study association was established 1957. It is also organized in eight regions. In addition it has a study center in Jerusalem. It has 52 member organisations, a broader variation of Christian congregations. For example, one of them is ”The Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation”, a Christian peace organisation.
In 2010, that association arranged almost 13 000 study circles with more than 95 000 participants. It also arranged more than 7 000 other study groups with more than 90 000 participants and it arranged more than 45 000 culture programmes with almost two million participants.
 One study association is affiliated with the conservative political party and has some other politically conservative organisations as members. It arranges more about 35 000 study circles every year with more than 200 000 participants.
 Another study association is affiliated with sobriety movements. It is mainly working with studies against the use of alcohol and other drugs, with public health etc. Its most well known predecessor was Oscar Olsson (1877-1950), the father of the Swedish study circle (see article 2). This study association arranges about 20 000 study circles every year with more than 100 000 participants.
 The youngest study association was set up 2010 and is devoted totally to culture studies. It has 13 member organisations, all of them active with music, theatre, dance etc in various forms.

Since many years, the Swedish study associations get quite a lot of economic support from the state, from regional councils and from local municipalities. However, during the last twenty years the economic situation has become more stretched. The reason is mainly a change in how the state grants are distributed, which has forced the ten study associations to become more competitive (see article 5).
In order to save money the study associations have reduced and are still reducing the number of local branches and also the number of employees at the local level. For example, the ”Study Promotion Association” had more than 120 local branches in the eighties, now there are less than fifty. Other study associations have reorganized so they today only have a few regional branches.
That means there are fewer places to go to in smaller municipalities when you want to take part in a study circle. It also means that there nowadays are fewer people within the study associations who have a profound knowledge of and circles of contacts in towns and villages.  
Historically, such knowledge and such contacts have been the backbone for developing the study associations to what they have become today. If the distance between the study associations and the ordinary people widens, what could then happen?

Expensive study circles?
In order to save money the study associations also have done away with some more expensive study circles. In the eighties there were a large number of study circles about weaving, one of the traditional art handicrafts in Sweden. However, those study circles were quite expensive because the looms took a lot of space which was difficult to use for any other purpose. Nowadays, there are almost no study circles at all about weaving.
In the eighties there were also some local branches of study associations which organized large musical projects – involving music, theatre and dance – for sometimes hundreds of amateurs. After maybe a year of preparation in many study circles they finally set up public musical performances. Nowadays, if there are any such project at all it demands special financing from for example the municipality.
The study associations have played – and are still playing – an invaluable role in preserving and developing the cultural heritage of Sweden. However, if some art handicrafts are regarded as too expensive for study circles, what will happen with them in the future?

The state support?
For a hundred years the Government and the Parliament in Sweden have supported study circles and other forms of ”folkbildning”. The study associations could count on a strong support among politicians in most political parties. One basic reason for that support has been that many of the politicians have personal experience of study circles and of studies at folk high schools. For example, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme, called Sweden ”a study circle democracy”.
However, nowadays more and more politicians are career politicians, with a lot of experiences of universities but little or nothing from ”folkbildning”. In the future, the study associations might not be able to count on a continuous safe support from politicians.

Another challenge for all study associations is how to recruit new participants to study circles. Most of those people who has already taken part in at least one study circle do return to join new study circles. Almost all of them have very good or good experiences and are easy to recruit to more study circles. However, those who have no personal experiences from study circles might be more difficult to persuade to give study circles a chance. Now and then, study associations make special efforts to reach immigrants and other groups which are hard to approach.
However, the study associations have so far only managed to recruit some of the new immigrants. Most of them have no experience or knowledge of study circles. Most new immigrants have also no contact with those organisations that are the members of study associations.

Internet poses still another challenge. Today, many young people seems to be so used to Internet that they can’t imagine themselves meeting face-to-face in a certain place at a certain hour every week. Many local branches of study associations do arrange study circles at a distance (see article 4). However, the number of such study circles are still quite limited. Besides, many young people seems also to be so used to unstructured communications at social forums on Internet that they can’t imagine themselves taking part in structured and planned studies.
The study associations have a hundred years of history in Sweden. Will they be abled to develop the study circle and survive in an Internet society?

To reflect upon…
• How to organize a system of study circles which are free to arrange those studies that the participants demand?
• How to build up study circle organisations which are rooted in the contexts where ordinary people live? In cities and in countryside?
• In Sweden all study associations are nationwide, with local branches. However, in the much larger China, study associations might be better organized at the provincial level?
• The form for state grants to study circles has shifted, from the first support in 1912 until today. What could be a suitable form for China?  

© Tore Persson