Ongoing protest over migration law’s effect on PhD students

There is ongoing resistance in Sweden from students, education stakeholder organisations and employer organisations to last year’s changes to the Aliens Act which make it difficult for researchers to obtain residence permits after completing their PhDs.

In the latest developments, major stakeholders met with Minister of Migration Anders Ygeman on 16 March to discuss how the migration law, known as the Aliens Act, that came into effect in June 2021, is creating significant problems for international doctoral students coming to Sweden.

Prior to June last year, international doctoral students were able to secure permanent residency after four years of doctoral studies. However, the changes – introduced without a transition period – now make it necessary for international students and researchers to show they are financially self-sufficient – in other words, have a job – for a period interpreted by the Swedish Migration Agency to be at least 18 months.

Representatives of stakeholder groups at the meeting with the minister included Linn Svärd, president of the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS); Therese Svanström, president of Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees and co-chair of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation; Magnus Wallerå, director and head of the education, research and innovation policy department at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (SN); Sanna Wolk, president of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF); and Göran Arrius, president of the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (SACO).

Intention vs effect

“We do not think that the purpose of the legislators of the new law was to stop international researchers working in Sweden, but this is the effect of the law. There are also many unnecessary issues that makes it difficult for doctorate students to have a career within the academy or at other places in the workforce,” Arrius told the meeting.

He said SACO would continue to push for changes in the law because both doctoral candidates and the researchers’ competence was needed within the academy and in the business sector if Sweden was to continue to be an innovative and strong knowledge-producing nation.

Meanwhile, doctoral student organisations are behind a call for active demonstrations against the Aliens Act around the country.

“The changes have created extreme uncertainty for doctoral candidates from countries outside the EU,” said Elin Malmgren, chair of the doctoral candidate section in the Chalmers Student Union.

Doctoral student unions are collaborating with the Facebook group, “Intl PhD students in Sweden call for change in permanent residency law”, which has posted the following: “The 2021 changes to the Aliens Act (utlänningslagen) and its interpretation by the Migration Agency (migrationsverket) has made it very difficult for non-EU/EEA researchers to gain residency permits after completing their PhD in Sweden.

“Besides unfairly damaging the lives and careers of these brilliant, hard-working people, this is disastrous for Sweden’s research and industry, which benefits greatly from the international exchange of research, ideas and competence.

“This peaceful manifestation is a way of letting all those who are affected or outraged by the changes make a public statement and stand together in solidarity.”

Demonstrations in Uppsala were formally organised by Doktorandnämnden, the doctoral board of Uppsala University, and follow in the footsteps of similar demonstrations in Lund on 19 February and Gothenburg on 26 February.

President of the SFS Linn Svärd told University World News last week that the student union maintains that the government needs to change the regulations so that foreign doctoral students and researchers can stay in Sweden.

“We are disappointed that the minister of migration has not taken more responsibility to address this issue,” Svärd said.

United front

Commenting on the united opposition to the new legislation, Pil Maria Saugmann, a PhD student at Stockholm University and chair of the Swedish National Union of Students' doctoral committee (SFS-DK), said it was “really something quite unique” that student organisations, labour unions and SN representatives should be “so aligned on a topic”. She said even the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Wallenberg Foundations had been active in discussions.

“Like SACO, the SFS and the SFS-DK are committed to continuing to push the issue and have been doing so since the summer. In SFS and SFS-DK we have recently released two reports on the topic (in different collaborations),” she said.

The first report is based on a survey of more than 5,000 doctoral students and early career researchers, half of whom have been affected by the legislation.

The survey, conducted in collaboration with Doktorandsektionen vid Tekniska Högskolans Studentkår (KTH PhD Chapter), the Swedish Network of Postdoc Associations, and the National Junior Faculty between 16 November 2021 and 31 January 2022, found that individuals affected by the new legislation perceive the impact to be huge and, in light of these recent changes, are now less likely to remain in Sweden.

The survey report suggested that in future, this may impact the number of international students and researchers wanting to study or work in Sweden in the first place. In addition, the loss of highly educated individuals would also affect other sectors, such as industry, as argued by the SN. It also noted that while doctoral students and early career researchers perceive Swedish language skills as important to their future career in Sweden, most find it challenging to learn Swedish with the time and resources they have available.

“This survey clearly showed how doctoral students and early career researchers are affected by the legislation to a large degree, and although they would like to remain in Sweden and make a huge effort to learn the Swedish language, the maintenance requirement in the new migration legislation makes it more unlikely that they do so,” Saugmann said.

‘Aliens in Academia’

The survey was followed on 16 March by the publication by the SFS-DK and SULF Doctoral Candidate Association of a report entitled The Aliens in Academia, comprising interviews with nine doctoral students directly affected by the new migration legislation.

The report provides a clear picture of how the new act negatively impacts researchers and the future of Sweden’s academia – a picture that the report’s authors hope will open the eyes of decision- and policy-makers to the personal and professional hardship created by the changes.

For example, Mat (not his real name), a doctoral student at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, described his stress when the law was changed.

“During the spring of 2021, Mat started planning to buy a flat and plan for his post PhD life. This also included discussions with leading researchers abroad to formulate joint funding applications and attract research funding, which would allow him to continue his academic career.

“Then the new maintenance requirement was introduced, and suddenly Mat could no longer fulfil the requirements to apply for permanent residency. This had a significant negative impact on Mat both professionally and personally,” states the report.

Robert (not his real name), a doctoral student at the Karolinska Institute, described how the COVID restrictions at the time made the residence requirements even more stressful.

“This coincided with the COVID pandemic so Robert could not visit his family as the illness started spreading. His research was also delayed as some high-level biology labs introduced heightened security standards during the COVID pandemic – staff without an ongoing permit were not allowed to use the lab space. He finally received a permit for one year and had to reapply once more in September 2021, an application which still has not been processed by the migration office.”

A different level of uncertainty

The introduction to the report notes that the personal worry expressed by the nine individuals centres around not knowing if they can stay in Sweden in the long run.

“Things such as buying flats and creating a home come with a different level of uncertainty if you do not know if you can remain in Sweden, and starting a family is not as easy if you do not know if you and your partner will have to uproot your children’s life in a few years.

“The personal consequences for these individuals are not limited to their lives in Sweden; it also very much affects their ability to travel to their country of origin. If you are in the middle of the residence permit application process and wish to travel, you cannot re-enter Sweden, and it is not uncommon for internationals to not be able to travel for Christmas, to go years without seeing their parents, families or friends they grew up with.”

Speaking to University World News, Saugmann described the interviews as “only the tip of the iceberg”.

“They show how both personally and professionally the doctoral students are affected. They also show that there is an intrinsic mismatch between being a doctoral student and fulfilling the maintenance requirement of the legislation,” she said.

According to Saugmann, in order to qualify for permanent residence under the new laws, doctoral students are required to have worked in Sweden for four years, and must have an employment contract for at least 18 months from the day that the migration agency makes its decision to grant or reject permanent residence.

“Given that this [process] takes around eight months it actually means that they have to have an employment contract of around two years and two months long,” said Saugmann.

“Doctoral education in Sweden is four to five years. In Sweden the universities have the financing for those years. But if we take the numbers above, to fulfil the maintenance requirement, Swedish universities would need to employ their doctoral students for six years and two months in total – way longer than the four to five years.

“Even if the Migration Agency processed all cases the day they received them – the universities would need to employ their doctoral students for longer than the length of the doctoral education.”

Spillover of refugee concerns

Speaking on behalf of the European Migration Network, migration expert Bernd Parusel said the network was currently “working on an overview that shows what European countries are doing to become attractive destinations for international researchers”.

Parusel said: “Countries generally try to offer attractive conditions and to provide various incentives to be able to compete with other countries for this much needed group.

“This is also true for Sweden, and it might therefore seem strange that Sweden made changes in its Aliens Act that have made it harder for international researchers to stay.

“I personally think what happened is that legal changes that were intended to tighten the rules for people coming here as refugees (or migrating for family reasons) have spilled over and now affect other groups as well, such as international researchers”.