Concern over exodus of most foreign doctoral graduates

The number of under 30-year-olds having started a PhD in Sweden has fallen to the same level as three decades ago, according to the Swedish Higher Education Authority or UKÄ, and most foreign students taking a doctoral degree leave the country within three years of graduating.

UKÄ has announced a two-year project looking into these problems and what can be done to strengthen doctoral education, analysing the situation from multiple perspectives.

The percentage of the population under 30 starting a doctoral degree was 1.6% for those born 40 years ago, in 1978, and fell to 0.8% for those born in 1987, UKÄ noted.

“This means that the proportion of the population starting a doctoral degree before the age of 30 is now back at the same level as 30 years ago,” UKÄ said in a press statement.

Analyst Anna Bengtsson at the Department of Higher Education Analysis at UKÄ said the project, in addition to looking at why the number of Swedish doctoral students is falling, will also seek to find out more about why doctorate holders are leaving Sweden, but currently has only limited information about this group. It will also carry out a study on foreign doctorate holders who do stay and pursue a career in Sweden, starting this autumn.

UKÄ revealed that in the period 1998-2012, 38,430 people took a doctoral degree in Sweden and 7,100 of these were foreign citizens (18%).

The number of foreigners starting a doctoral degree has risen from 510 in 1997, when the first data was recorded, to 1,500 in 2013 but fell back to 1,250 in 2016.

Three years after graduating, 62% (4,630) of foreign doctoral students had left Sweden while 38% (2,720) were still in the country. This proportion fell only slightly, to 35%, eight years after graduation.

Two-thirds of the foreign students had graduated in medicine or health sciences (2,290) and natural sciences (2,170), followed by technological sciences (1,540), social sciences (570), agricultural sciences and veterinary medicine (290) and humanities and arts (230). The highest percentage of foreigners among all those graduating with doctorates was in agricultural sciences and veterinary sciences (27%).7090

President of KTH Royal Institute of Technology Professor Sigbritt Karlsson told Universitetsläraren, the news magazine of the Swedish Association for University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), that when KTH announces a doctoral position – which is normally salaried in Sweden – it might get one Swedish applicant and 99 international applicants.

“Either Swedish research education is not as attractive for Swedish students or Swedish industry and society are not valuing a doctoral degree – maybe staff without a doctoral degree can land good jobs with a high salary without having a doctoral degree.”

Tuition fees exemption

Karlsson questioned the value of having a situation where 35% of doctoral graduates are foreign citizens, of which more than 60% leave the country.

“In 2011 tuition fees were introduced for students coming from outside Europe, as it was decided in parliament that Swedish citizens’ taxes should not be used for educating international students. But doctoral training is also an education and there is no logic in exempting the doctoral student from tuition fees,” Karlsson said.

Jacob Adamowicz, the president of the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS), told University World News that a career in research was probably not as attractive as other types of work because of the conditions, with many temporary periods of employment for a long time if you are a young researcher.

“So even if the working conditions for PhD students are better in Sweden than in many other countries, a career in other sectors will guarantee better working conditions in the long run. This of course makes doctoral positions more attractive to foreign students than to Swedish students.

“To introduce tuition fees for PhD studies is the wrong way to handle the problem, as a part of having a doctoral position is doing actual research. It would also threaten the internationalisation of Swedish higher education institutions.”

Attractive conditions

He said what is needed is a shift towards more attractive working conditions at the same time as making it possible for students at all levels to stay on in Sweden after graduation.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, also told University World News that introducing tuition fees would not make sense.

“What we have to do is to increase the attraction of research in Sweden so that we can achieve a better balance between Swedish and foreign applicants and make it more attractive for foreign graduates to remain in Sweden. We need the perspectives that international talents bring.”

The special investigator for internationalisation in Swedish higher education in 2017-18, Agneta Bladh, told University World News that Sweden needed to attract more Swedish doctoral students.

“The Swedish labour market needs to rethink how these people can contribute to different workplaces and thereby make doctoral education more attractive outside academia.”

She said it was important to remember that international doctoral students can contribute to Swedish society even if they do not stay in the country.

“Wherever and in whatever sector the new doctoral graduates settle, in the higher education sector, the business sector or elsewhere, they will become good connection points for future collaboration with Swedish institutions or Swedish business.”