Almost half of the country's 19,000 PhD candidates come from abroad. They are considered a significant resource for Swedish research and higher education, but still are subjected to unfair conditions because of flaws in legislation. As representatives from the country's two largest national associations for PhD candidates, we are concerned about the situtation of foreign PhD candidates facing difficulties when applying for permanent residency and citizenship.
PhD candidates are the only group in our society who are defined both as students and as employees. The majority of today's PhD candidates are university employees for at least four years, they pay taxes, and they contribute to the Swedish education and research community. But for a long time, foreign PhD candidates have been granted temporary residence permits based on student visas instead of work permits. In 2014 the law was amended so that PhD studies would be considered work, and that residence permits for four years of doctoral studies could result in a permanent residence permit.
Despite the recent change in law, the total period of time for PhD studies is not always considered as the basis for qualification for permanent residency. The Migration Agency only counts the qualifying period for permanent residency from the date when the first temporary residence permit for doctoral studies has been issued. PhD candidates who have had a residence permit based on other grounds need to wait until their existing permits expire and then apply for a residence permit based on their PhD studies. The same applies to those who have had residence permits based on family grounds (co-applicants) or another type of attachment. The time spent on the old residence permit is not included in the qualification criteria and is completely wasted. Therefore, the current interpretation of the law discriminates against those PhD candidates who have previously had residence permits based on other grounds.
Issuing temporary residence permits is a very time-consuming process, both for PhD candidates and for the Swedish Migration Agency. Currently, PhD candidates must renew their residence permit every year. And those who receive residence permits shorter than a full year are not entitled to national registration. This means that they cannot apply for a social insurance number and could miss many important benefits and services to which members of Swedish society are entitled.
Moreover, while their applications for the extension of their residence permits are being processed, they cannot travel back to their home countries, attend conferences or take PhD courses abroad. The situation may, unfortunately, be even more difficult for those who have their family in Sweden. Taking parental leave is not always possible for these applicants while their residence permit application is being processed. Applicants who do not have a valid residence permit during their parental leave are not entitled to register for Insurance Agency services to receive child benefits and paid parental leave.
Applying for Swedish citizenship can be even more complicated. PhD candidates who want to become Swedish citizens must have lived in Sweden for at least five years and intend to stay here. Meanwhile, foreign students and PhD candidates must indicate in their initial applications when they are expected to leave Sweden. It can happen that this information is used against them several years later when they apply for citizenship, despite the fact that current legislation is clear that this information may not be used as the basis for issuing citizenship.
We believe that these conditions are not fair to foreign PhD candidates who have resided legally in Sweden for many years and who have contributed to the Swedish economy, research and higher education. The recent changes in the law that simplify the possibility of permanent residence are a very good foundation, but we still see ample opportunities for further improvements and thus suggest the following amendments:
1. Issue longer residence permits for foreign PhD candidates. Two-year residence permits are already the established practice for other groups of expatriates in Sweden. A practical solution is to issue longer residence permits for PhD candidates as well. We suggest issuing residence permits of two to four years instead of the present one-year permits. Such a simple change would save lots of time and resources for all parties involved.
2. Consider the qualifying period for permanent residence permits from the first day that the person is admitted to the corresponding PhD programme. Our proposal is that laws need to be amended in order to take into account the time of PhD studies as the qualifying period for permanent residency, regardless of what type of residence permit the person has been issued. Alternatively, the authorities should allow PhD candidates to renew their residence permits as soon as they are employed, rather than waiting until their current residence permits expire. The advantage is that the time they have had a residence permit based on other grounds would not be lost when they apply for permanent residency.
3. Citizenship must be granted based on fair and proper grounds. The current reading of the law by the Migration Agency is used against doctoral candidates who have previously mentioned in their application that they may intend to leave Sweden and is currently grounds for dismissing the right to citizenship for these applicants. But our experience based on contact with foreign doctoral candidates shows that this is not a fair practice. Facilitating the process of citizenship applications for foreign PhDs would enable them to apply for EU-funded research grants, participate in fundamental democratic processes (such as Swedish parliamentary elections and EU parliament elections) as well as to be able to travel abroad with a Swedish passport without the need to apply for visas to other countries.
We often meet foreign PhD candidates who are unsure whether they can or want to stay in Sweden after their graduation because of the complexities in the existing legislation. It is a great loss for both academia and Swedish society when such highly educated people leave the country. We need a better understanding and communication between the authorities involved to avoid different interpretations of the regulations concerning foreign PhD candidates.
We welcome all opportunities to establish a dialogue with the authorities and we encourage decision makers to review and improve the existing legislation so that foreign PhD candidates can be given fair opportunities to obtain permanent residency and citizenship in Sweden.
This is am English version of an opinion piece first published in Swedish by UNT.
It was written by Benny (Behbood) Borghei, member of the board at SULF's (the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers) Association of Doctoral Candidates; Anna Ilar, chair of SULF's Assocation of Doctoral Candidates; and Ulrica Lundström, chair of the Swedish National Union of Students-Doctoral Committee.