Amirali and his brother are both Iranian students who dreamed of studying in Sweden. Amirali graduated from his Masters of Chemical Engineering at KTH and now works at a Swedish company; his brother Dara should have been arriving in Sweden to start a Masters of Data Engineering at Uppsala University on Friday.
Dara has paid 1,500 kronor for a residence permit application and a further 72,500 kronor in tuition fees, but did not get on his flight to Sweden.
The reason is that the Swedish embassy in Iran cancelled all face-to-face interviews for permit applications due to the spread of coronavirus in the country. As The Local has previously reported, the interview cancellations have left many students unclear on their status with just days to go before their courses begin – particularly since the embassy only formally confirmed this week that no interviews would take place until January 2021 at the earliest.
Like other students who were accepted to Swedish universities, Dara has been told that Covid-19 is not a sufficient reason to apply to defer the place.
This leaves him with two options, neither very attractive: begin the autumn semester online, but risk having to halt his Masters if he can't make it to Sweden in January; or request a refund of his paid tuition fee and reapply next year. The university has set a deadline of August 31st to request reimbursement, not leaving long for him to decide the best option.
“As well as Uppsala University, I also received admission from RWTH Aachen university in Germany, and an outstanding job offer in Tehran. I rejected both of these, to pursue my academic future in Sweden. This decision has had an enormous impact on my life and I will have to repeat the process of applying to universities again for a whole year,” Dara told The Local.
The Swedish Migration Agency said that the decision to cancel interviews, which was made by the embassy, would affect almost 700 scheduled interviews, 90 percent of them related to family reunion permits, leaving around 70 student permit applicants affected.
Stockholm University. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT
The Local asked the Foreign Ministry's press office if other embassies have also cancelled permit interviews, and a press officer said they believed this was the case, but would need to confirm the details, and we had not heard back by the time of publishing. Of four universities which responded to The Local's questions, none were aware of similar problems in countries other than Iran.
Iran's ambassador to Sweden wrote in a tweet that he had discussed the issue with his Swedish counterpart and that only a “few” cases remained unresolved. The Local contacted the embassies for more information about the meeting and the number of cases affected, but had not heard back at the time of publication.
While the coronavirus pandemic has affected travel and embassy operations across the world, the students argue that not enough is being done to support them. The Italian embassy in Iran, for example, is holding its student permit interviews by Skype, while the Swedish Migration Agency has said there are “legal and security barriers” to digital or phone interviews. Some non-Iranian citizens who had appointments scheduled at the Tehran embassy are able to rebook at embassies in neighbouring countries, an option not available to Iranians.
If similar options were extended to Iranian students, they could begin an autumn semester online with greater confidence they could attend the spring semester in person.
Some Iranian students said they had been issued new times for interviews in late January, meaning that even if the rescheduled appointments go ahead, they'd miss part of the spring semester, which may make them ineligible for their study permits.
Shiva Zarandi was supposed to be attending Gothenburg University for a Masters in International Business and Trade. Like Dara and many other students, she's contacted the embassy, Migration Agency, Foreign Ministry, and her university, but is stuck in a Catch-22 with the Migration Agency saying an interview must be conducted for a permit to be issued, the embassy not organising these interviews, and just days to go to weigh up her limited options.
“My first term is online, and I can study remotely, but I'm worried about my spring semester, because it will begin on January 18th and it will be held on campus,” she told The Local. “This new appointment [January 26th] is really late for me to be present on time. The university said I have two options: one of them is start your term online, second option is refund.”
She says the course is her “dream”, so she doesn't want to decline it – and a classmate had their request to defer his place rejected – but she is nervous about starting online given the risk that she may not make it in time for the spring semester.
Shiva has been given just a few days to decide whether to cancel her longed-for university place, or begin studying remotely and risk being unable to complete her course if she can't get a permit interview. Photo: Private
Not all universities are treating students in the same way, with differences both in the possibility to begin studies online, and receive tuition fee reimbursement after the start of term.
KTH previously told The Local they had extended the possibility for non-Europeans to begin their studies until September 7th. However, students cannot start their studies remotely, and must be physically present in Stockholm.
Lund University meanwhile had 34 Iranian students set to begin studies this autumn. Of those, three have requested a refund, 21 have received their residence permit already, and the remaining ten have not, though most of them are waiting on biometric data or residence cards (services which are still operating at the embassy) rather than interviews. Just one of the university's Iranian students has so far arrived in Sweden.
“A colleague is in constant contact with them, as far as we know all 31 are still hoping to come but we don't know how many will arrive,” a press spokesperson said.
He added however that Lund University would refund tuition fees for any students who could show they had tried to get a residence permit in time for the start of term, even if the request is made after the deadline for registration, saying: “We are not mean people!”
In Gothenburg, Chalmers University had 21 Iranian students pay for the autumn tuition, of whom six have had their interviews cancelled, according to Mattias Bingerud, a senior advisor to the Vice Rector.
Chalmers students have the option to begin their studies online, but must arrive at the university before the start of the spring semester, but were still subject to the usual deadline for reimbursement requests.
“Even in this unclear situation the request for reimbursement still has to be raised on August 31st at the latest. Students are however more than welcome to start their studies remotely and arrive on site later during the semester or at the start of the spring semester,” Bingerud told The Local.
Are you an international student affected by this, or has your life in Sweden been otherwise affected by the coronavirus? You are always welcome to get in touch with The Local's editorial team – we are a small team so we are not always able to answer complex questions, but we may be able to help you tell your story or point you towards useful resources.