Migration agency eases rule for international students

The Swedish Migration Agency has bowed to pressure to drop the requirement for international students to provide evidence of being able to afford living costs for the entire period of their study when applying for a residence permit.

It announced on 29 January that this will no longer be compulsory and that students may also be exempted from the requirement to be engaged in full-time studies “in certain cases of prolongation”.

“The objective of the first change is to reduce the need for renewed examinations and give more students the chance to finish their studies,” the announcement said.

The exemption from the full-time studies requirement is being introduced because “regularly we experience that students are in need of more time after spending the allocated study time for degree requirements to be able to complete their studies”.

To be offered a waiver, students will have to have applied for a prolongation of their residence permit before the existing one runs out, have a realistic study plan confirmed by the university and have fulfilled other requirements for a residence permit.

The announcement came three days after the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm publicised the case of a masters student from China who had paid tuition fees and had been denied a renewed residence permit for her fourth and final term.

She was told she had to leave the country within four weeks because the Swedish Migration Agency (SMA) said she could not prove that she had enough funds to support herself for the final months in Sweden, according to a report in KI’s English newsletter.

Since last autumn around 10 masters students at KI from non-European Union countries have received deportation notices under a tougher approach being taken by the SMA regarding the renewal of visas and residence permits for students. The stricter approach, which focused initially on doctoral students, as reported by University World News, is increasingly focusing also on masters students.

Vice-Chancellor at KI, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, on his blog page appealed for a change in the rules, arguing that “deportation orders counteract internationalisation”.

“With only one semester of study left, some of Karolinska Institute’s international students have had their application for a residence permit extension rejected.”

He said deportation orders are issued in accordance with former practice which doesn’t take into account the introduction of tuition fees in 2011 for non-European Union/European Economic Area international students.

“Ten years ago, the situation was different. Since then, tuition fees have been introduced in Sweden for non-EU students. International students are financially dependent on their parents and-or families and rarely, if ever, have access to funding, unlike most of their Swedish peers. The international students and their families are well aware of this and have to make considerable financial commitments for their studies in Sweden.

“The deportation orders mean that these students must therefore abandon their studies, so Karolinska Institute is looking into possible ways for them to complete their studies at a distance.”

Most of the students facing deportation have appealed to the Migration Court but some are still waiting for a decision, KI reported. The student who is now being deported has had her request to have her case reviewed by the Migration Court of Appeal refused. This potentially leaves her unable to complete studies on a course for which she has already paid the fees.

“The situation has huge consequences, first and foremost for the affected students, but also for KI’s and other educational institutions’ ability to attract international students and contribute to Sweden’s reputation as a leading knowledge nation,” Per Bengtsson, university director at KI, said.

Ottersen said the Swedish Migration Agency’s deportation orders rest on the self-sufficiency requirement. According to a 2007 ruling by the Migration Court, international students, in order to gain the required residence permit, must prove that they have sufficient funds in the bank to cover two years of study and subsistence in Sweden.

“This is equivalent to half a million or more krona [€50,000 or US$63,000] and is completely unreasonable,” he said.

The added bind that some international students were finding themselves in is that the SMA has not been accepting evidence of students having enough money in their bank accounts as proof, the KI report says.

Even where students have shown there is enough money in their account, the SMA has deemed it not credible that the funds are for the purpose stated but rather that they have been deposited in the accounts temporarily, the KI report says.

“These students are usually supported by their parents or other relatives, which is natural because it is unusual for young people to have personal assets equivalent to between SEK500,000 and SEK600,000, which is the total cost for a student from a non-EU country to study a masters programme at KI,” Bengtsson said.

KI has written to the SMA and the ministry of education and research to raise the matter.

Agneta Bladh, the special investigator on internationalisation of Swedish higher education appointed by the government, told University World News: “The rules which are guiding the [Swedish] Migration Agency seem to be very much focused on the student as a financially independent person, fully responsible for himself or herself. This is not always the case, as Karolinska [Institute] points out. The internationalisation review will devote part of its remaining work to foreign fee-paying students.”

Agneta Bladh delivered the first part of her investigation to Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson on 30 January.

Commenting on the SMA statement, she told University World News: “The Migration Agency apparently wants to make the situation a bit better. How it will be implemented is their issue. The internationalisation inquiry has the ambition to suggest more suitable solutions.”