Fears persist over impact of immigration rules on academia

Members of the government have said there is no plan to restrict researchers’ family members from coming to Sweden and that immigration for highly qualified people will be “protected”, but academics are still worried about what they perceive as an increase in hostility towards immigrants that will make the country less welcoming to academics and researchers.

In an article published in Expressen on 20 March, Minister for Migration Maria Malmer Stenergard (Moderate Party) and Minister for Education Mats Persson (Liberal Party) said that while the Tidö agreement, which binds the current government made up of parties from the right-wing bloc (Sweden Democrats, Moderate Party, Christian Democrats and Liberals), makes provision for a “general review” of the conditions for family immigration with the aim of tightening up the regulations in general, immigration for highly qualified people is to be protected.

The ministers were responding to an earlier commentary by the Association of University Teachers and Researchers’ Sanna Wolk and the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations’ (SACO) Göran Arrius published on 13 March in which the two said Sweden was no longer an attractive country for foreign PhD students and researchers.

Signals of hostility

Wolk and Arrius argued that the government’s plans to ‘improve’ the rules for foreign researchers’ residence permits in terms of the Tidö agreement “signalled that Sweden wants the highly qualified researcher but not the researcher’s family”.

Stenergard and Persson, however, argue that the government is “very keen to get more international talent to apply to Sweden” and that “migration legislation that allows highly qualified immigrants to bring their families is a prerequisite for standing up in international competition”.

They said, “[t]he change in the law that was carried out in 2021 meant that those who want to live in Sweden permanently as a general rule also need to be able to show a livelihood, which we think is reasonable. The slightly lower number of internationally recruited researchers for 2021 is most likely not due to a six-month-old law change, but to the corona[virus] pandemic.”

The ministers said the Swedish Migration Agency has been tasked with “promoting highly qualified labour immigration, short processing times, improving accessibility and service and making it easier for visa-exempt persons to present their original passports when applying for a temporary residence and work permit”.

They denied that the government is “ashamed” of the migration policy – a comment reportedly made by Persson in an interview in February – which will “bring order to migration and make it easier” for highly qualified immigrants.

“We can calm down SACO and SULF. The government is not ashamed of the migration policy that will bring order to migration and make it easier for highly qualified immigrants. On the contrary, we are proud to implement it,” the ministers wrote.

In an interview published in the Swedish Research Council newsletter Curie, Persson, who had then been Education Minister for four months, reportedly told interviewer Charlie Olofsson he was “ashamed” of the changes to the migration law in 2021 which have led to lengthy delays in the issuing of permanent residence permits and more stringent self-support requirements for applicants, as reported by University World News.

Characterising the regulations for international researchers “as a great mistake”, he said: “I am ashamed. We are throwing the smartest people out of our country.

“In the governmental platform between the government and the Swedish Democrats there is an opportunity to change these regulations and introduce specific arrangements for residence permits for researchers, post-doc candidates and doctorate students and to make it easier for them to get a residence permit,” he said.

Perrson said Sweden was one of the few countries in the world that makes no distinction in the regulations for a residence permit between people seeking asylum or those members of a highly qualified workforce.

“We cannot have it like this. We need a strict immigration policy in general taking into regard the integration problems we are having, but we also need flexible rules for highly qualified experts, and not least researchers,” Person said.

He said he would work towards a change in the migration regulations for researchers as soon as possible, but gave no timeframe. “It will take some time, but we are keeping up a high tempo on this issue. If I could have decided, we would have changed it tomorrow. But we must follow the rule of law,” he said.

Family immigration

Meanwhile, Arrius and Wolk argue that tightening up on family immigration will lead to even more researchers rejecting Sweden.

They cited an example of “a prominent researcher with large EU grants” who had chosen to move both the grants and his family to another country. “The researcher's partner was pursuing a doctorate in Sweden and had not received a permanent residence permit as a third-country citizen,” they said.

“As a doctoral student, you have a fixed-term employment of four years. In the past, it was sufficient for the spouse to have a permanent position, but this has changed since 2021. As the research family has children, they seek stability and therefore move to a country where they can either become citizens or obtain permanent residence permits.”

Arrius and Wolk wrote that since the changes in the law 18 months ago, universities are reporting a downward trend in the number of highly qualified international researchers coming to Sweden. “We also see that other countries are welcoming both the researchers and their families to strengthen the country's competitive position towards other countries,” they said.

On 24 January 2023, a long list of changes – amounting to what has been called a “paradigm shift” in immigration – was presented by the government. Additionally, a motion presented in parliament in 2021 on a Swedish language test as a condition for Swedish citizenship is gaining renewed attention.

Professional ethics

SACO is also concerned that in terms of the Tidö Agreement, public employees will be obliged to report undocumented people to the authorities – a requirement that goes against the ethics of professions such as education, social work and health.

“In the Tidö Agreement it is stated that ‘municipalities and authorities shall be obliged to inform the Migration Agency and the Police Authority when they come into contact with persons staying in Sweden without a permit’.

“Professionals who base their work to a high degree on trust and trusting relationships may be obliged to perform actions that directly conflict with their professional ethical rules and current legislation. We can never accept that,” Arrius said in an article published in Svenska Dagbladet earlier this month.

Speaking directly to University World News, Wolk said the government’s planned changes would probably not affect family members who already have temporary residence permits for studies or research as these are governed by an EU directive.

“However, there is a risk that the family members may not stay in Sweden or come here if the doctoral student or researcher later applies for or obtains a permanent residence permit,” she said.

In a departure letter to Persson on his leaving his position as rector at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in February, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen listed four recommended tasks for the minister to work on, with migration for international researchers and students being among them.

Indignation, despair and sadness

“Over the last years I have been more and more indignant and in fact despaired over the rigidity, changed legislation and interpretation of the regulations surrounding international students, doctorate candidates and researchers,” he said.

He added that the Karolinska Institutet had experienced cases where highly qualified researchers had chosen an institution in another country “as a result of cumbersome and insecure processes [on migration] as well as badly motivated decisions for rejection”.

Agneta Bladh, former chairperson of the Swedish Research Council, who chaired the internationalisation investigation in Sweden in 2018-19, told University World News she had realised “with sadness” that even if the minister understands the importance international exchanges have for high quality in research and higher education, “the circumstances and prerequisites around the government” seem to have made international recruitments impossible.

“Up to now, Sweden has not been able to compete with high salaries but instead with good life conditions for families, including partners and children. Now our advantages are taken away.

“This will have devastating consequences for Swedish research, if not modified rapidly. I really hope that the minister will have success in his aspirations for better conditions for foreign researchers in Sweden.”