Business criticises migration rules for foreign graduates

Swedish businesses are calling for measures to keep international masters and doctoral graduates in the country, arguing that the new criteria for graduates’ residence permits will make it more difficult for graduates to stay and are counterproductive when it comes to avoiding a further widening of the gap between demand and supply of highly educated workers in Sweden.

Under current requirements, introduced in July 2021, an international graduate can only obtain permanent residence if they have lived in Sweden and have had a residence permit for doctoral studies for a total of four years over the previous seven years, and if they are in employment or self-employed in Sweden.

In addition, according to Ulrika Wallén, policy expert for higher education at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents 60,000 companies with two million employees, the new requirement that a graduate must be able to show they will have a stable income for 18 months starting from the date the application for permanent residency is examined also makes it difficult for them to stay.

The confederation published a report on 13 December which claimed that two-thirds of its member companies had reported difficulties in finding highly educated experts.

A widening gap

Their concerns are backed up by new data showing that retaining international masters and PhD graduates is necessary to avoid a further widening of the gap between demand and supply of higher educated staff in Sweden.

The report, translated in English as Foreign Masters and Doctoral Students are Leaving Sweden: Problems and obstacles for international top competence to be retained in Sweden, written by Johannes Hylander and Malin Sahlén of the Swedish PR company New Republic, and Ulrika Wallén and Amelie Berg of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, paints a less optimistic picture than a recent report from the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) on the issue.

This is partly due to the fact that the latter report relies on statistics on the recruitment of international masters degree students in Sweden over the past decade.

University World News asked authors Wallén and Hylander how the two reports compared and what they believed were the most relevant issues for Swedish business and enterprises.

Both emphasised that the new demand to have 18 months of stable income guaranteed from the day a decision is taken by Migrationsverket (the Swedish Migration Agency) on their application would have counterproductive effects.

Wallén said: “Every fifth recruitment attempt among Swedish enterprises fails, often due to the lack of candidates with the right skills and 67% of enterprises think it is difficult or very difficult to recruit employees with a university degree. Also, the lack of researchers in business is increasing.

“The challenges of finding the right skills exist throughout the country, in all industries and in all types of companies. Because the need for cutting-edge expertise is big in Sweden, it is becoming increasingly important that foreign masters students and doctoral students who have studied at Swedish colleges and universities choose to stay after their studies.”

A break in the trend

Wallén added: “Three years after graduation, 38% of the foreign doctoral students remain in Sweden. Eight years after graduation, only 20% remain. However, new data from UKÄ shows a break in the trend as more foreign doctoral students are staying for the first time since the 1990s. Three years after graduation, more than half now stay in Sweden. A change in the law in 2014 made it easier for doctoral students to stay in Sweden after their studies, which may have contributed to the increase.

“It will be very positive for Sweden if this trend persists as international expertise is important for both the business community and the academy’s supply of skills.”

The report contains new data on the enormous global interest in masters degree studies in Sweden. In 2019-20 almost 90,000 students applied to undertake an advanced degree in Sweden and 86% of these did not have a Swedish personal number. The number of applicants, however, is much greater than the number of students accepted and who end up studying in Sweden.

In 2014-15 approximately 40,000 international students applied. Half of them were accepted and only 2,311 started their studies and stayed at least one term in Sweden. In total 39% (or 6,868) of those graduating at masters level in 2019-20 were international students, but in most fields the percentage was 45 or higher.

In 1997 there were 16,000 Swedes in doctoral studies in Sweden and 2,000 international students. In 2020 the number of Swedes had dropped to 11,500 and the number of international students had increased to 6,000. Over the last 20 years the number of doctoral graduates has not increased, and in relation to the number of university graduates, there are significantly fewer starting a doctoral degree.

Reasons to study in Sweden

According to a 2013 study, the four main reasons international doctoral students chose Sweden were free tuition for masters students (until 2011) and PhD students, possibilities for funding, quality, and English-medium instruction.

Only 17% said that Swedish working life was an attractive factor when deciding to select Sweden for PhD studies. Another factor that has since become more important for international students is that it is now common for doctoral students to be offered salaried recruitment positions. In 2020 this was the case for 83% of the international doctoral students admitted, compared to 47% in 2011.

Hylander commented to University World News: “The report that we have written does not in itself contradict the findings from UKÄ, partly because UKÄ’s study focuses solely on the period before the introduction of the new migration laws.

“We conducted a survey with universities to ask why foreign masters and doctoral students do not stay on. We have also interviewed the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers about the effect of the new migration laws.

“Regarding the numbers of students that have remained, we referenced UKÄ’s study from 2019 and the Statistics Sweden report from 2020 which stated that only 38% of doctoral students remained after three years. We did not have access to UKÄ’s most recent findings when writing the report.

“The most important part of our report is the findings in relation to the new migration laws. Those of special relevance for both industry and academia in Sweden include the fact that while the total number of doctoral students in Sweden has decreased over the past few years, the number of international doctoral students has increased.

“There is a higher probability that Swedish doctoral students will stay in Sweden after graduating so even if a higher proportion of the international students remain in Sweden after three years now compared to previous years, it will not make up for the total loss of students. Hence both industry and academia risk losing competence in the long run.”

Hylander reiterated that the new migration laws would make it more difficult for both masters and doctoral students to remain in Sweden after graduation. “Especially since many of the job opportunities after graduation in academia are fixed-term employment,” he said.