Migration law – One of many hurdles to a research career

Brain drain is already taking place in Sweden as a result of the migration law of 2021 – known as the new Aliens Act – according to President of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) Sanna Wolk.

Speaking to the media on the sidelines of a seminar hosted by the Centre for Business and Policy Studies (SNS) in Stockholm on 4 May to discuss the impact of lower numbers of doctoral students on innovation and knowledge production, Wolk, who is also a law professor, said the migration law introduced in 2021 has added to the problems of foreign graduate students in Sweden.

“This law will not help to repair those figures reported leaving,” she said.

According to figures from the Higher Education Authority, supplied by SNS to the gathering, fewer Swedish students are choosing to enter doctoral studies and only 54% of PhD students from abroad stay in the country after they have finished their studies.

A ‘less attractive’ career

Michael Fored, director of research education at the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm, said an academic career was now “simply less attractive and very insecure” compared with other careers.

He said pursuing a scientific career represented an “uncertain choice”.

“The different hurdles have become so many, for many good reasons, but all in all it is more secure to take up a post-doc elsewhere if you are a foreigner, and if you are Swedish, you might not even start,” he said.

Anna Sandström, director science policy and relations Europe at AstraZeneca, said the company was highly dependent on foreign researchers in their recruitment policy.

“We have over 70 nations represented [in the workplace], just in Gothenburg,” she said, “and 600 of those have a PhD degree and approximately half of those are coming from abroad.”

While AstraZeneca had not yet “registered any effects of the migration law”, if the law were to lead to foreign citizens leaving Sweden “for the wrong reasons” the laws would simply have to be changed, she said.

The 2021 changes to the Aliens Act (utlänningslagen) have made it very difficult for non-EU/EEA (non-European Union/European Economic Area) PhD students and researchers to gain permanent residency after completing four years of PhD study or work in Sweden.

A maintenance requirement in the act makes it necessary for international students and researchers to show they are financially self-sufficient for a period of time interpreted by the Swedish Migration Agency to be at least 18 months.

The maintenance requirement puts Sweden at a disadvantage compared with other EU (such as Norway, the Netherlands and Germany) and overseas countries (such as Canada), and when compared with other career paths.

United opposition

The issue has received extensive media attention and wide support from a variety of sectors in Sweden including universities, trade unions, students’ unions, Svenskt Näringsliv (Confederation of Swedish Enterprise) and several other research and innovation-related organisations.

The united effort is aimed at introducing an amendment to the Aliens Act to resolve the issues for international doctoral students and researchers.

The Tekniska Högskolans Studentkår (THS) student union’s PhD Chapter at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, an active driver of a national campaign to bring awareness to the issue since 2021, is co-organiser with the doctoral student association at KI of a “Researchers’ Manifestation Against the New Aliens Act” rally to take place in Stockholm on 15 May.

The Stockholm demonstration marks the continuation of a series of other public demonstrations that have already taken place in Lund, Gothenburg and Uppsala earlier this year organised by doctoral student associations against the act.

Teo Elmfeldt, president of the THS student union at KTH, described the situation facing international doctoral students as “an issue that unites industry, academia, trade unions and student unions … everyone is a loser with the current interpretation of the law”.

Elmfeldt said the consequences would be “great” for the whole of society but “in the middle” were the country’s “future top researchers who want to build their lives here, but cannot plan long-term on staying”.

He said “not solving the problem was a political decision”.

“Obtaining permanent residency is necessary for long-term planning … for international doctoral students and researchers. The new maintenance requirement in the Aliens Act is detrimental for international competence and puts Sweden at a significant disadvantage compared with other countries.

“Sweden is risking a serious brain drain. The time to act is now!” said Mohammad Abuasbeh, chairman of the THS PhD Chapter at KTH.