News Release

Understanding the issue at hand – shadow education in the Nordic countries

Research on shadow education in the Nordic sociocultural context provides valuable insights on global patterns in education

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Cactus Communications

Shadow Education in the Nordic Countries

video: Shadow education, i.e., private tutoring supplementary to mainstream education, is on the rise in the Nordic countries. With far-reaching impact on the educational landscape, the phenomenon is evidently here to stay. view more 

Credit: ECNU Review of Education

“Shadow education” describes a system of private supplementary tutoring that exists outside the framework of mainstream education. An increasingly competitive global knowledge economy has provided fertile ground for shadow education to flourish. While research on the subject has been growing, shadow education in the Nordic countries is still underexplored.

The special issue of the ECNU Review of EducationContradictions of Egalitarianism: Nordic Ways of Shadow Education—fills a missing piece of Nordic shadow education research on the global map, providing new insights on shadow education with analysis in the Nordic context. An editorial by Professors Søren Christensen of Aarhus University in Denmark and Zhang Wei of East China Normal University on the emergence and sociocultural implications of shadow education in the Nordic countries sets the stage for the rest of the issue.

The Nordic countries are known globally for their dedication to a universalist welfare model. In this model, social and political policies must benefit everybody, not just disadvantaged groups; and naturally, free, democratic, and inclusive education is part of the core. As a private enterprise, shadow education is usually perceived as the very antithesis of these ideals, and thus lacking a market in Nordic countries. Maybe that was the case two decades ago, when shadow education was almost non-existent in the Nordic countries; but it changed after the turn of the century, in part of because of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) studies, of which the first ranking was released in 2001.

PISA triggered performance anxieties among the Nordic countries (except for and compared with Finland), which partly resulted in a more accountability-oriented approach to education policy. “The emphasis was now less on the lofty ideals of democracy and equality and more on the (in)ability of Scandinavian education systems to provide the learning outcomes needed to sustain national competitiveness in a global knowledge economy,” remarked Christensen and Zhang.

With contributions from leading scholars and practitioners in the field, the special issue explores how these circumstances led to the rise of shadow education in the Nordic countries. It touches on several subjects, beginning with the European context of shadow education. This overview paper, updating insights from a path-breaking report commissioned by the European Union, shows four major sub-regions within Europe and ways in which the Nordic countries are ‘catching up with the others’.

Other articles focus on the use of shadow education as ‘homework support’ in Sweden and Denmark, the Norwegian initiative to offer free supplementary tutoring in public schools, and Finland’s examination-preparation courses; and the Voice article presents perspectives from the largest tutoring company in demand. The special issue also sheds light on the Nordic social and cultural factors that both inhibit the growth of shadow education and nudge it towards expansion and development. As highlighted by Christensen and Zhang, the recent rise of shadow education bears witness to both the erosion and to the persistence of the Nordic model in education.

The theme of shadow education is not new to the ECNU Review of Education. In 2019, the journal published a special issue on shadow education in China (Vol.2, No.1), placing itself at the forefront in this domain. A comparison of the two special issues shows the wide spectrum of social implications and business models that shadow education encompasses. Even though shadow education is nowhere near as popular in the Nordic countries as it is in China, some parallels can still be drawn between the two.

Shadow education has had a profound impact on educational outlooks in other countries, but how will it play out in the Nordic model? This special issue has some insights – as well as pointers – for other parts of the world.

The special issue of ECNU Review of Education is being released in the lead up to the 19th Shanghai International Curriculum Forum entitled Comparing Curriculum and Instruction Inside and Outside Schools: Policies and Practices (6-7 November 2021).

The study has been further discussed in this podcast from the 19th Shanghai International Curriculum Forum (SICF):



Authors: Søren Christensen1 and Wei Zhang2

Title of original paper: Shadow Education in the Nordic Countries: An Emerging Phenomenon in Comparative Perspective

Journal : ECNU Review of Education   



  1. Aarhus University, Denmark
  2. East China Normal University, Shanghai

About the ECNU Review of Education 

The ECNU Review of Education (ROE) is an international, peer-reviewed journal that publishes research at the forefront of educational issues in China and abroad. Established by the East China Normal University (ECNU) in Shanghai, this open-access journal encourages articles that use interdisciplinary perspectives and embrace contextual sensitivity. The ROE facilitates dialogue within the pedagogical community and builds an international network of scholars, all with the goal of advancing knowledge, sparking big ideas, and fostering meaningful change.

About Professor Søren Christensen

Søren Christensen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Education Studies in the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark. His chief research interests lie within the realm of educational globalization and comparative education, and his current focus is on developing a research framework for understanding the emergence of shadow education in Denmark and Scandinavia.

About Professor Zhang Wei

Zhang Wei is Professor in the Institute of Curriculum and Instruction (ICI), and the Executive Director of the Centre for International Research in Supplementary Tutoring (CIRIST) at East China Normal University (ECNU). She has received global recognition for her comparative work on shadow education and related policies, having researched in contexts as diverse as Cambodia, Denmark, Japan and Myanmar, as well as in China. She is also an honorary professor at Aarhus University, Denmark. Her previous experience includes work for the Chinese Ministry of Education and for UNESCO in Bangkok. During 2020/21, she was a Fellow of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report in Paris.

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