Agency calls for investigation into ‘shadow doctorates’

The Swedish Higher Education Authority or UKÄ has warned the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm that its method of selecting PhD students breaches the law.

The Karolinska Institute is hiring young researchers who are competing for a doctorate position for periods of four to six months as ‘temporary research practitioners’, but this period is not included in the time period requested for the PhD and critics say this amounts to a form of exploitation.

In an 11-page letter on 13 March to the rector of the Karolinska Institute, the UKÄ questions whether the way PhD students are selected at the institute is violating the regulations set out in the university law and regulations decided by government and parliament.

The Karolinska Institute has until 2 May to respond.

In the letter, Anders Söderholm, the director general of UKÄ, and Carl Braunerhielm, the legal advisor at the UKÄ department of legal affairs, said the case raised the question of whether applicants in practice are being treated as so-called ‘shadow doctorates’ while they are employed as research practitioners.

They concluded that the concept of ‘shadow doctorate’ needs to be further investigated, in a broader context than at present. An investigation will therefore be carried out this year and will include questions to both higher education institutions and students’ organisations.

Meanwhile, on a related issue, the Swedish magazine Entreprenör on 22 March published a story claiming that new procedures at the Swedish Migration Agency are “sabotaging Swedish research”.

The magazine reported that approximately 70 doctoral students, having been accepted as research associates to prepare a PhD proposal, have to travel back to their countries of origin to apply for a new visa.

Professor Staffan Strömblad at Karolinska Institute and others have threatened to stop recruiting doctoral students from certain countries to get away from what they call “absurd procedures”. Approximately 40% of those now starting PhD studies in Sweden are from outside Sweden.

Those researchers competing for a doctorate position are coming to Sweden on a guest researcher’s visa, but when accepted for a PhD position have to go back to their home country to apply for a visa for a doctorate position.

Chief negotiator Robert Andersson of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers told University World News that he thinks PhD students should not be admitted on probation and supports the question of ‘shadow doctorates’ being investigated by UKÄ on a broad basis.

Jacob Adamowicz, the vice-president of the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS), told University World News: “We are glad that the Swedish Higher Education Authority investigated and determined that Karolina Institute's process for admitting and hiring PhD candidates violates the higher education act. It is important that higher education institutions follow the rules set by the higher education act to ensure that admissions are handled in a fair way for all and to ensure that candidates are not exploited.”

Agneta Bladh, the special investigator for internationalisation, told University World News that, although migration issues belong to another ministry and are outside her terms of reference, the migration processes are an important factor in internationalisation.

“They have to be as flexible as possible in order to make it attractive to come to Sweden. I have planned to discuss migration issues with the authorities concerned,” she said.