Universities prepare to change PhD students’ status

Several Swedish universities are preparing to employ all doctoral students from 2015, changing from the current system in which PhD students receive financial support that varies according to the funding source.

In 2011, foreign students accounted for 37% of an intake of 3,650 new doctoral students. This was up from 34% in 2010, according to a report from the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, titled Universitet & Högskolor – Universities and Colleges.

In addition, 18% had a ‘foreign background’, meaning that they were either born abroad and had immigrated to Sweden or were born in Sweden of parents who had been born abroad.

About half of the foreign doctoral students came from Asia, and a third from Europe, with China the country that sent the most PhD students to Sweden.

PhD students are exempted from the introduction in 2010 of tuition fees for students from outside Europe.

The total number of active doctoral students was 18,900 in 2011 and 60% of them were employees of the university or college that admitted them. Three-quarters were in medicine, health sciences or technology.

Institutions with a majority of foreign citizens among new doctorate students were KTH-Royal Institute of Technology (177 new students, 63%); Blekinge Technological University (10 students, 63%); Borås University College (11 students, 61%); Luleå Technological University (59 students, 57%) and Chalmers Technological University (122 students, 54%).

Foreign PhD students were mainly in the fields of technology and natural sciences (60%), while Swedish students dominated in medical and health sciences and social sciences.

Among the students admitted to doctoral programmes, 55% had at least one parent who had completed a tertiary degree, while the corresponding figure for bachelor or masters students was 33%.

From 2002-03 to 2006-07, 236,000 students were awarded a bachelor or masters degree at a Swedish higher education institution, and 12,000 of them (5%) had embarked on a doctoral degree before the end of the study year 2010-11.

The time-to-degree for doctorate candidates in 2011 was 8.3 terms of net study time (based on full-time studies) and 11 terms calculated from time of admission. The median age of PhD candidates was 34 years.

At Gothenburg University (GU) the number of doctorate candidates was reduced from 322 in 2008 to 242 in 2012, a drop of 25%, with numbers in the humanities and in business administration cut by more than a half.

Dean of the Faculty of Humanities Margareta Fahlberg told GU Journalen that there were several reasons for the reduction, the main one being that austerity budgets from 2006 forced the faculty to reduce the PhD intake – leading to a zero intake in 2009. The decline in new doctoral candidates would continue until at least 2015-16, she said.

From 2015, doctoral students at GU will become employees of the university from the start of their PhD programmes, even if the opportunity to finance doctoral students with grants is not removed completely from the other Swedish universities.

This reform is costly, however, and could mean a further reduction in new doctoral students.

Ibrahim Baylan, the previous education minister and a spokesperson for the Swedish Social Democratic party, told the major Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter in December that all doctoral students should have an employment contract with the university “from the very first day of their doctorate studies”.