Employment status given to nearly all PhD candidates

The Swedish government has changed the university law to ensure all doctoral candidates – except a few who are on scholarships – are made an employee of the university with a salary.

The change means that gras will no longer be permitted as a way of financing doctoral candidates. The grants only covered the cost of studies and holders could not take any form of employment, whereas scholarships cover other expenses.

The change should strengthen the position of PhD students, including international students, who typically make up 40% to 50% of the country’s 19,000 doctoral candidates.

Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson said that doctoral candidates are working on an equal basis [to other staff] and should therefore also have equal working conditions.

Anna Ilar, chair of the Swedish Association of University Teachers or SULF’s Association of Doctoral Candidates, said that the union has for a long time pushed for doctoral candidates to have an employment status due to the rights of sick leave, parental leave when having children and pension rights that go with it.

Problems with resident status and visa regulations remain, however, including the restriction that residence permits and visas are issued for a maximum of one year for both PhD candidates and post-docs even if their employment extends beyond a year.

This latter problem was eased by an announcement in January that year visas would become possible, but it has only recently been implemented and any decision is still subject to the decision of the migration officer.

In November, Ilar and two other board members of the SULF Association of Doctoral Candidates, Benny Borghei and Megan Case, warned in an article in Universitetslararen that such difficulties are leading many foreign PhD candidates and post-docs to give up due to the ”complex regulatory environment”.

Borghei told University World News last week that the new legislation only partly addresses the problems faced by foreign PhD candidates.

He said the majority of doctoral candidates had already been employed by universities as a result of continued efforts by SULF – but the aim was to change the situation for the remaining few per cent who have been on scholarships or study grants.

“This was to provide equal conditions for all PhD candidates in Sweden such as insurance, pension, parental leave, child allowance, etc. We just reached that goal and since last week it was officially adopted and so all PhD candidates can now enjoy equal employment conditions regardless of where they come from.”

But he said the regulations for visas, permanent residence permits and citizenship still need further improvements.

“International PhD candidates have long suffered from the old and complex migration regulations as well as bureaucratic complexities when dealing with the migration agency in Sweden,” he said.

Kicked out

He said until 2014 foreign PhD candidates didn't even have the right to stay in Sweden after their studies and had been “literally kicked out of the country as soon as they were done with their PhD”.

“You just imagine a PhD graduate who could have a family, a child, and might have bought an apartment and suddenly had to leave the country!” It was officially the practice by the migration agency which did not consider the time for PhD studies as a period of habitual residence and thus did not qualify it for permanent residency.

That changed in 2014 when MPs passed a bill granting permanent residency to foreign doctoral candidates with four years of continuous study in the previous seven years at the PhD level, irrespective of whether they were employed or had grants or a scholarship.

But there are several other issues that still need to be improved, Borghei said. They are mostly related to how those laws are being interpreted by the migration agency and some inconsistencies arising from ambiguities in the current migration laws. For instance, when a PhD candidate is officially employed by a Swedish university and is sent abroad to collect data, this can be problematic when he or she is going to apply for permanent residency some years later.

Meeting with migration authorities

Other issues include the lengthy processing time and requirement for yearly extension of visas, and the dual requirements to ask foreign PhD candidates to state when they are expected to leave Sweden when they apply for a visa extension and then using it against them when they apply for citizenship several years later.

Borghei, who came to Sweden as an international student himself 10 years ago, said SULF has had meetings recently with the migration agency Migrationsverket to discuss further improvements for international PhD candidates.

“This is a very slow, gradual process and requires patience and persistence,” he said.

This article was changed on 25 April to explain that the changes applied to grant holders, not scholarship holders and that there is now an option of a two-year visa, although it is subject to a decision by a migration officer.