Agency report raises concerns about student visa abuse

The Swedish Migration Agency believes it has found indications that significant numbers of international students are abusing their residence permits, but not everyone agrees with the criteria used to make that claim.

A recent report, “Abuse of Residence Permit for Study”, reflects the findings of an investigation into Pakistani students, in particular, who were granted residence visas in 2020 to pursue two-year masters programmes at the Halmstad and Linnaeus universities.

The report suggests that close to one-third of the Pakistani students applied to Sweden with the primary intention of working rather than studying and did not apply for their residence permit for the second year of their degree. As such, they are in danger of breaching labour market law and of exploitation by the restaurant industry in Sweden.

Although the focus is on Pakistan, the study also points to extensive abuse of visas by students from other countries.

According to the statistics of the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKA), the five countries with the most applications for residence permits for studies in Sweden in 2020 were: India (2,140), China (2,089), Pakistan (995), Bangladesh (732) and Iran (596).

In a report published in Universitetsläraren, Abraham Haro, head of unit at the Swedish Migration Agency, said of the background to the report: “We wanted to look at whether there is any abuse of residence permits for studies … There was no theory that we wanted to pursue, and we had to choose a group of applicants to focus on. But we have not looked at abuse of the system in general.”

Factors behind the ‘abuse’

In the same Universitetsläraren article, the Swedish Migration Agency cites an oversupply of places for international students and low language proficiency requirements as factors contributing to the abuse.

The report notes that before the autumn term of 2020, the Swedish Association for Universities and University Colleges (SUHF) raised the language requirements for student applicants from Bangladesh, a move that saw the number of applicants fall by 30%: from 1,042 in 2019 to 732 in 2020.

In addition, the agency claims that higher education institutions have strong incentives to accept foreign students without setting particularly high entrance requirements because tuition fees are an important source of income for many of them.

In the report, legislation is also listed as a prime facilitator of the abuse. International students in Sweden are currently allowed to work full-time, or more, alongside their studies and are permitted to apply for a work permit after having passed one semester (30 ECTS or European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System) of studies.

Population registries

The findings of the report were facilitated by the fact that Sweden has among the most extensive population registries in the world.

The registry data allowed investigators to check the distance between the work visa applicants’ registered university and their residential address one year after arrival in the country.

At Linnaeus University in Kalmar, only 20% of the Pakistani students were living at the study centre after one year and in Halmstad that proportion was 43%.

It was found that 38% of the Linnaeus students were actually living in the capital Stockholm which is 410 kilometres away from Kalmar, while 20% of the Halmstad students were living in Stockholm, 490 kilometres away.

The largest percentages of students not living at the two campuses were found to be living in the greater cities of Gothenburg and Malmø.

To minimise abuse among international students, the migration agency, with the help of the Swedish embassy in Islamabad, conducted personal interviews with potential students during which they attempted to establish whether the student had genuine intentions of studying in Sweden.

In 2020, 26,718 such interviews were undertaken in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad.

The interviews focused on the circumstances of the student, their knowledge of the course in Sweden for which they had applied, and their motivations for applying.

Over the past two years, 30% to 40% of those interviewed were rejected, leading Swedish universities to describe the approach as “paradoxical” because the more applicants the agency rejects, the more candidates universities need to find in order to fill the courses demanding tuition fees.

Question marks about evidence

Brita Lundh, head of educational support at Halmstad University, believes that there are question marks over the migration agency’s report.

“This is a very large and complex issue. It’s terrible if there are individuals who are being exploited, whether it is for human trafficking or illegal work. But this issue has many different aspects, and we think that the Swedish Migration Agency needs to have a little more evidence before drawing these conclusions,” she told Universitetsläraren.

Lundh said she disagreed with the reasoning in the report which argued that several higher education institutions have strong incentives to accept foreign students because tuition fees are an important source of income.

“The fee level is set on the basis of full cost coverage, so it’s not something we are allowed to make a profit on. The money that the students pay is preceded by quite a lot of work on our part to recruit them and help them when they arrive.

“If they don’t complete their studies, that’s purely a loss for us. There’s not a single university that is the least bit interested in accepting students who don’t want to study.”

She said the only incentive that might exist is that foreign students allow higher education institutions to offer more courses.

“We have many masters programmes that are difficult to fill without international students. You could call that an incentive, but there’s no profit in it.”

Lundh was critical of the method used to report how many students drop out.

“We have looked at those admitted to two-year second cycle programmes. We don’t have a higher percentage of international students leaving after one year than we do Swedish students,” she said.

Residence information

She was also critical of the use of residential addresses to determine abuse.

“You can’t draw conclusions about a lack of intention to study solely on the basis of where people live,” said Lundh.

“And when the report looks at the place of residence of the Pakistani students during the pandemic, that’s incredibly strange. Distance learning was mandatory, and people could live anywhere.”

She said close cooperation with the Swedish Migration Agency is absolutely vital for Halmstad University.

“It is very important to us that the students who come here and want to study get their residence permits in time. Every year I see students who can’t come because they haven’t received their residence permit in time due to the migration agency’s long processing times.”

Stephen Hwang, rector of Halmstad University, commented to University World News: “I think that Brita Lundh at Halmstad University has replied and commented in a satisfactory way. I have no further comments.”

Recruitment agents

The study draws particular attention to the approach of Pakistani recruitment agents to defend its argument that students are coming to Sweden primarily to work. It argues that agents’ recruitment material – some examples of which are reproduced in the report – offers the possibility of unlimited work as “a selling point” when recruiting Pakistani students.

While some of these agents are contracted by Swedish universities, others operate on their own, taking fees directly from potential students.

The study concedes that it is difficult to determine the extent to which the agents are responsible for the abuse. It found no significant difference between the contracted agents and those operating on their own: both use students’ access to work in Sweden as a “selling factor” in their information brochures.

Agneta Bladh, immediate former chair of the Swedish Research Council, who chaired the internationalisation investigation in Sweden in 2018-19, said it was important to look at the number of international students passing their final exams.

“Having international students from many different countries is a way to strengthen an intercultural understanding amongst students… However, this study is about something else. It is about the intention behind applying for a course and it shows that some students might not intend to study, but to work instead,” she told University World News.

“It is difficult to say how many students act in this way just by showing the students addresses. During the pandemic online studies were the rule.

“More important is the number of students passing the exam, also as a marketing issue for the higher education institutions concerned. Therefore, it has to be studied carefully. It is important for the higher education institutions that students at Swedish universities are successful if they have the right prerequisites for their studies.”

Focus on Pakistan

Dr Bernd Parusel, senior researcher at the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies (Sieps) and an expert on migration, raised concerns about the report’s focus on students from Pakistan.

“… International students in Sweden come from many different countries. It would seem a bit strange to me to draw general conclusions about a widespread misuse of residence permits for studies from looking at just one particular nationality.

“If the law allows international students to work as much as they want during their studies and to ‘change tracks’ and stay in Sweden for employment or self-employment reasons, I would be hesitant to speak of ‘abuse’ when people actually do that.”

Parusel said the fact that Sweden allows international students to work during their studies, and to stay in the country for work or business activities after their studies, is a factor that contributes to Sweden’s attractiveness as a study destination.

“Attracting students and researchers has been considered important to open up the higher education system to the world and create dynamic, internationalised study and research environments. New restrictions, new control measures to prevent possible cases of misuse might counteract other policy aims, such as to attract students and workers that are needed here.

“When Sweden introduced tuition fees for students from non-EU countries in 2011, this led to a lower share of international students from developing countries. New policies to counteract possible misuse of study permits could have a similar effect again and hit students from low-income countries harder than students from wealthy nations.”