Foreign PhD candidates in battle against bureaucracy

The Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers, or SULF, is now asking international doctoral candidates in Sweden to report if they have been treated unfairly by the Swedish Migration Agency.

The purpose is to gather information on agency decisions to reject permanent residence requests in order to seek a court ruling by the higher migration appeal court.

A notice on the Facebook page of the doctorate association of SULF last week asked: “Are you an international PhD candidate who has been refused a permanent residence permit in Sweden for one of the following reasons?”

It urged candidates who have had a temporary residence permit for PhD studies for four years or longer but have not conducted the full four years of PhD studies, and candidates who have been actively pursuing their PhD studies for at least four years but had a residence permit for something other than PhD studies for some of this time to come forward.

In an article in the SULF magazine Universitetsläraren, the chief negotiator at SULF, Robert Andersson, said the Swedish Migration Agency’s interpretation of the law is in “maximum disfavour of doctorate students”.

The judicial expert at the Swedish Migration Agency, Patrik Pettersson, said the agency is not going to change its approach, even if two recent rulings of the migration court have overruled their rejection of citizenship for international doctoral candidates.

The agency will continue to check the requirement of four years’ residence as a doctoral candidate for permanent residence and Swedish citizenship. SULF is referring to two recent cases of the migration court where the court has given two doctoral candidates the right to permanent residence, even though the migration authority had rejected their application.

The migration agency’s Petterson argues that these two court decisions do not set a precedent, and that a ruling in the higher Migration Court of Appeal is needed. Until now, the appeal court has refused to process these cases.

The migration court did not give any weight to the claim of the Swedish Migration Agency that one of the doctoral students had not been registered as a PhD student for four years, but as a guest student for some of this time.

“Four years is four years,” Pettersson argues. “When should it end otherwise?”

‘Misinterpreting the law’

SULF’s Andersson claims that the migration agency is misinterpreting the intentions in the law.

For a long time, SULF has been an active spokesbody for the rights of international doctoral students in Sweden, even creating an association – SDF – to work on these issues.

Three representatives for SDF in November claimed in an article for Universitetsläraren, entitled “Foreign Academics not Welcome in Sweden?”, that some of the international doctoral candidates who came up against the uncompromising Swedish bureaucracy gave up and left Sweden for a more welcoming country.

SDF representative Behbood Borghei, who is a doctoral candidate in technology management and innovation policies at Linköping University, told University World News that there have been a lot of improvements in recent years, including, most significantly, permitting PhD candidates to qualify for permanent residency, as well as extending their visas for up to two years.

He said these are “really great changes that we truly acknowledge and appreciate, but there are still problems that people are facing”.

These include:
  • • Visa processing times are still long and during that time the applicant cannot travel abroad. Also, the risk of not being able to attend their job for a long time due to not having a valid visa is very high. Therefore, being stuck during the processing time, they are not able to attend conferences, research duties or PhD courses abroad.

  • • When applying for permanent residence the period of time that PhD candidates might have spent abroad as part of their employment (conducting research in another country as part of their job) is sometimes deducted resulting in some PhD candidates not qualifying for permanent residence.

  • • When switching between jobs or between different types of residence permits, applicants have to wait until their current visas have expired before they can apply for a new visa. But the period between the two visas then would not be considered as grounds for permanent residency later on. Therefore, it is suggested that people can apply and get a new visa right after they are employed as a PhD candidate and the qualification for residence should be based on the period of employment during a PhD, not based on their visas.

  • • Some PhD candidates or graduates are being denied citizenship when they apply because under the previous law they had stated that they may leave Sweden in the future. This is a retroactive application of the law and is prohibited in the legal system.

  • • There are also discrepancies among case officers in how they interpret the laws.
Borghei said these problems could easily be solved through dialogue between SULF and the migration agency.

Record numbers

The Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education, or STINT, when presenting the ‘STINT Internationalisation Index’, reported that 2015 marked the highest proportion of international students ever registered, close to 40% of the 19,000 registered PhD students in Sweden, after a small decrease in the percentage was reported in 2014.

At KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the percentage of international PhD candidates was 65.8%, at University of Borås 61.4%, at Dalarna University 62.5%, and at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences 55.2%. At Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, however, only 36.6% of PhD candidates were from other countries.

A growing number of courses at Swedish universities are now taught in English, the highest proportion being at Stockholm School of Economics (71.2 %) and Chalmers University of Technology (61%).

The former rector of Stockholm University, Professor Emeritus Kåre Bremer told University World News: “I cannot comment on the judicial interpretations, but in general I think that it is rather perverse that Sweden should have such restrictive legislation for permanent residence and that this is rejected for international researchers whose education Sweden has invested in – there is a demand for such highly qualified people.”