Student life today – and 60 years ago


Published Jun 16, 2017

Cecilia Molinder will finish her degree project this summer. By then, 60 years will have elapsed since Sigvard Bahrke was awarded his degree. When the student of the 1950s meets the student of the 2010s, the conversation touches on everything from desperately looking for accommodation and exam stress to union work, cap buttons and a revolution.

Sigvard Bahrke began his studies in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in autumn 1952. He was one of 357 new engineering students at KTH Royal Institute of Technology that autumn. In 2011, when Cecilia Molinder started at the School of Biotechnology, there was a significantly greater number of new students – during that year 2,522 students embarked on one of KTH’s traditional programmes.

KTH was not an entirely obvious choice for either Sigvard Bahrke or Cecilia Molinder. Sigvard even considered becoming a doctor, and when Cecilia left upper-secondary school, she had no idea what she wanted to be.

“So I went up to Åre, in the mountains, worked as a ski instructor for three years and thought it would all become clear to me during that time.”

It didn’t. But as maths, chemistry and biology were the subjects she had been most interested in at upper-secondary school, she was leaning towards the sciences and was recommended to apply to KTH.

“I didn’t know very much about what an engineering graduate did, but people said to me that engineering was great, a very broad field and I’d be able to get a job.”

Lower pace in the 1950s

Cecilia would agree with this description but adds that the programme also requires a great deal of work. The pace is high, and you simply cannot afford to fall behind, she stresses. Personally, she thought that the best way was to join forces with some other students and help each other with their studies.

“My friends and I did an incredible amount of studying together. We needed each other, asked each other about different things all the time,” says Cecilia.

The study pace was perhaps somewhat lower in the 1950s. Sigvard remembers having to concentrate very hard indeed prior to exams but recalls that few students dropped out. He and some of his course mates also attended Stockholm School of Economics at the same time as KTH and the lectures sometimes clashed.

“But we studied together, helped each other and briefed those who had missed something,” says Sigvard.

Keeping a roof over your head is a recurring problem for most students new to the area. Cecilia comes from Gävle. She spent two years living with a friend’s cousin, but was subsequently able to get a student flat due to being in the queue before moving to Stockholm.

Sigvard, who grew up in Malmö, rented a room from a widow in Östermalm. Three engineering students lived in the grand apartment, sharing a toilet and a wash basin. Sigvard’s room was the former dining room.

Gradually, Sigvard also managed to find his own flat – a tiny studio without hot water or a shower.

“I kept myself clean at Sturebadet baths. And you could also shower at Kevlinge golf course.”

Make the most of student life

Campus isn’t just a place to get your head down and study or stress about exams – it’s also a place to meet people, as Cecilia and Sigvard point out. They both agree that making the most of your student days by enjoying yourself and making new contacts is also an important aspect.

Sigvard is still in touch with some of his course mates, and the week after the interview, he will be meeting up with some of those who began studying at Mechanical Engineering in 1952. Cecilia was part of the singing and humour group Musikaliska Direktoriet, one of the many student associations at KTH.

“I learned a lot from it. But above all, I’ve had an amazing amount of fun.”

Both Cecilia and Sigvard were also involved in the student union. Sigvard was president in 1955, Cecilia 2014–2015 and when they meet, they immediately start to compare their experiences.

As union president for more than 12,000 students in the 2010s, Cecilia was paid full-time and took a sabbatical during her year as president. In the 1950s, the position was entirely unpaid and had to be managed alongside studies.

“But there were only around 2,000 students at KTH at the time, so it wasn’t such a burden,” stresses Sigvard.

Few women

Sigvard can hardly remember any course mates who weren’t born in Sweden, and only a few women.

“I think there were 24 of us in my class in Mechanical Engineering, and only one of them was a girl. But there were a few more women in Chemical Engineering.”

One of them was called Birgitta and was appointed Master of Ceremonies (MC) the year after Sigvard was president. Her surname has long been Bahrke. The day before the spring ball, the year’s MC, who according to tradition was to hold a speech for the man, backed out. Birgitta offered her services as a stand-in but pointed out that there was hardly any time to write a speech.

“I can help you with that, I said, and so we sat through the night together and wrote that speech,” says Sigvard.

The Cap War

Another of his vivid memories of union work was the battle regarding cap buttons. Inspired by the union caps of Chalmers’ students, Sigvard wanted to introduce common headgear for the engineering students at KTH, too.


This year, KTH’s campus will be 100 years old. What has happened over the years that have passed? We met students, researchers, teaching staff and others who told us stories of past and present.

This series of articles will be published until October when a jubilee event will be held. During a 50-hour non-stop seminar lasting from 17–19 October, 100 speakers will talk about KTH’s past, present and future.

Read more about the .

When he initially presented his proposal, as president, it was voted down. But he wasn’t one to give up so easily and immediately after his term of office had ended, Sigvard revisited the proposal as his own project, with the majority of the engineering students being in agreement that they wanted their own cap.

 “It was a classic English cap in black velvet with a button on top. The buttons were made in different colours, denoting section affiliation. As it was our own private project, Birgitta and I also decided on which colours the various sections would have,” says Sigvard.

Lots of hats were sewn, and they were celebrated with a big party in the student union. But the buttons caused conflict. The electrical engineering students got very hot under the collar that they hadn’t been assigned the correct colour. They had been given white buttons, not yellow like an electron. In protest, the electrical engineers carried out a symbolic revolution, complete with the hanging of an effigy of Sigvard Bahrke.

“Apparently, a doll in my image still hangs at the annual meetings of the Electrical section,” says Sigvard with satisfaction.

Engineers as leaders

Cecilia, who is 28, was appointed Female Leader Engineer last year. So this autumn she will be embarking on a custom trainee programme at three major industrial companies: Astra Zeneca, Skanska and Fortum. This challenge also means that she will be working outside the realm of biotechnology.

“I’ll be using a great deal of my general engineering expertise, such as problem solving and the ability to take in large amounts of information. And I have experience of finances and leadership from my work in the union.”

Sigvard is now 86 years old and has a long career in corporate leadership in the forest and paper industry behind him. But he has never actually worked as an engineer, he explains.

“I was engaged at an early stage in more overarching tasks. But my degree gave me a certain amount of self-confidence and freed me from any exaggerated respect for other people’s academic achievements. And the contacts I made during my student days are ones that I’ve benefited from throughout my life.”

Text: Ursula Stigzelius

KTH students then and now

  • In the early 1950s, there were an estimated 2,000 students attending the programmes offered by KTH at the time. From 1950–58 a total of almost 4,000 students were admitted. Since that time, these figures have multiplied further, with 13,000 full-time students enrolled in 2016.
  • The composition of the group of students has also changed. In the 1950s there were few women students at KTH, and the number of students born outside of Sweden was even smaller. According to KTH’s annual report for the 1952–53 academic year, 14 foreign students were admitted after being “deemed eligible by the National Board of Technical Universities” as ordinary students in autumn 1952. But whether these 14 were also born and raised outside the Nordic region or came from Swedish parts of Finland, for example, is not mentioned.
  • Nor does the annual report say anything about the number of women among the new students that autumn. Women could also be admitted to KTH as ordinary students from 1921. But in the 1940s and 50s there were still few women, according to unanimous voices from that time.
  • Admittedly, the most common type of student at KTH is still a middle-class young man with Swedish as their native language. But the number of women students has steadily increased in recent years and today, women make up just over a third of KTH’s students.
  • Students of the 1950s received neither grants nor government loans but instead were forced to live off their parents, savings or possibly scholarships. The grant system introduced in 1965 gave more people the opportunity to apply for higher education. But KTH’s latest starting survey, conducted in 2015, shows that the majority of new students come from homes where at least one parent has studied at university or an institute of higher education.
  • According to the same starting survey, 12 percent of new admissions who responded to the survey had a native language other than Swedish, and five percent came from a country outside the EU.
  • Over the years that have passed, the education itself has also undergone extensive change. In the 1950s, KTH educated engineers in 9 different departments: Mining, Surveying, Shipbuilding, Electrical, Chemistry, Physics, Mechanical, Road and Water, and Architecture. The biggest department was Electrical, with 75 newly admitted students in the autumn term of 1952, followed by Mechanical, which admitted 61 new students the same autumn.
  • Since that time, these nine departments have become ten schools, new programmes have been launched, others have been terminated as independent programmes or have been redesigned and changed their name. Mining has become Materials Science and Engineering, and Shipbuilding has been incorporated in the broader concept of Maritime Engineering. The traditional KTH 5-year programmes in architecture or engineering have also been supplemented by Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes.

Report on activities at the Royal Institute of Technology, 1952–53
KTH’s annual reports 2016, 2015 and 2011
Starting surveys 2011 and 2015 (survey designed by KTH and compiled by Statistics Sweden)
CSN (National Board of Student Aid)
Sigvard Barhke’s and other alumni stories

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