Foreign postgrads caught in the middle of poor legislation

Sweden should make it easier for foreign PhD students to apply for residency, argue three representatives from two of Sweden's biggest academic associations.

Foreign postgrads caught in the middle of poor legislation
A university student in Sweden. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

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.

READ ALSO: Fewer foreign graduates stay in Sweden to work

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.

For members


Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.