Why are international doctoral students flocking to Stockholm universities?

The share of international doctoral students in Stockholm has increased sharply in the past ten years, a new report shows.

Why are international doctoral students flocking to Stockholm universities?
The KTH Royal Institute of Technology gets the largest share of international doctoral students. Photo: Veronica Johansson/SvD/TT

A total of 43 percent of Stockholm's 5,440 doctoral students come from another country – an increase of 14 percentage points since 2008 – according to the report by the Stockholm Academic Forum (Staf).

Most of them are enrolled at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, where almost 1,000 doctoral students are of foreign origin – or, in other words, 58 percent of doctoral students at the university.

The Stockholm School of Economics has seen its share of international doctoral students grow from 25 to a whopping 53 percent over the past ten years, and from 19 to 42 percent at Stockholm University.

Sweden as a whole has seen a rise from 20 percent to 35 percent in the same period.

“It is a testament to the great reputation of our higher education institutions. We know that Stockholm is highly valued by foreign researchers, and in international comparisons, we often see that higher ranked universities have a higher proportion of international doctoral students,” said Maria Fogelström Kylberg, CEO of Staf, a collaborative body of Stockholm City and its 18 higher education institutions, in a statement.


Being a doctoral student in Sweden comes with several perks. One of the main ones is that unlike in many other countries, in Sweden doing a PhD is considered a job, which means that it often comes with not just student discounts, but also a range of employee benefits: salary, holiday days, sick pay and a pension.

If you come from a non-EU country, you may also be eligible for a permanent residence permit after your four years of doctoral studies – an attempt by Sweden to convince foreign talent to stay after their studies.

But students waiting for an extension to their permit often face long waits for a decision, and several readers have told The Local of the stress this causes: including being prevented from travelling to their home countries to visit family and friends, or missing out on key international academic conferences.

If you are an international doctoral student in Sweden who want to share your story – good or bad – we would love to hear from you. Please email [email protected].

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‘They feel conned’: Swedish universities fight for PHDs hit by new residency rules

Sweden's top universities are to call for doctoral students to be exempted from Sweden's tough new permanent residency rules, arguing that it will damage both academic standards and national competitiveness.

'They feel conned': Swedish universities fight for PHDs hit by new residency rules
At Lund Technical University, a majority of doctoral students are international. Photo: Kennet Ruona/LTU

In a post on Wednesday, Astrid Söderbergh Widding, the chair of Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions, said that Sweden’s universities had agreed to submit a joint letter to the government “very soon”, calling for parliament to put in place a special exemption for PHD students to make it easier to stay in Sweden after their studies. 

The parliament, she wrote, “should introduce an exemption for doctoral students and young researchers from the requirement to be financially self-sufficient”. 

Previously, doctoral students were eligible for a permanent residence permit if they had lived in Sweden with a residence permit for doctoral studies for four out of the past seven years. Apart from a slim set of requirements, this was granted more or less automatically.

But according to Sweden’s new Migration Act, which was introduced in July this year as comprehensive legislation to control the number of asylum applications, they now need to be able to additionally show that they can support themselves financially for at least a year and half.

The new law means that the rules for permanent residency are now the same for all categories of applicants, including doctoral students.

Stefan Bengtsson, the rector at Chalmers University of Technology, said that the change would mean as many as 400 to 500 doctoral students, many of whom have built up considerable expertise, might be unable to stay in Sweden.

“This makes for an uncertain future for those from outside of Europe who have applied to come to Sweden for an academic career, which is cause for great concern and disappointment among those who came here under other circumstances,” he told The Local. “Some of them may, of course, feel like they’ve been conned

But what was even more worrying, he said, would be the impact the change to the law might have in the longer term. 

“This change to the law could contribute to giving Sweden a bad reputation. This will create difficulties in recruiting internationally and damage our long-term skills supply.”


At Lund University, the majority of doctoral students in the science and technical faculties are from outside Europe, while Söderbergh Widding, who is also vice chancellor at Stockholm University, estimated that about half of doctoral students were international. 

Söderbergh Widding told the TT newswire that the change was “a devastating death blow”, which put to waste a “previously hard-won battle to make it possible for doctoral students to obtain a permanent residency permit after four years of studies”. 

She said in her letter that the change contradicted the research policy proposition from December 2020, which stated that the “number of foreign doctoral students who stay in Sweden should increase”, and said that giving residency to doctoral students was a good way to increase this.  

Ole Petter Ottersen, the rector of the elite Karolinska medical university, told the newswire that he thought the change in residency laws would damage Swedish competitiveness. 

“This is not good for Sweden. This will damage our ability to attract and recruit talent from other countries. For a country that lies on the periphery, the goal should be to make it easier, not harder, to recruit competence.”