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UNIVERSITIES

What’s it like coming to Sweden as an international student during a pandemic?

The international student experience is enriched by the chance to travel abroad and meet new people, but what happens when a pandemic makes those two things difficult or dangerous? Students who had arrived in Sweden for the autumn semester shared their thoughts with The Local.

What's it like coming to Sweden as an international student during a pandemic?
Some students missed the start of term because journeys to Sweden were so complicated. Photo: Veronica Johansson / SvD / TT

Around 3,000 fewer exchange students are studying in Sweden this year, while other international students (who had planned to move to Sweden for a full degree rather than just an exchange semester or year) faced logistical challenges.

Raghav, an Indian Masters student at Uppsala University, is starting his second year. Although he was able to renew his student permit, there were no direct flights available from India, which remains on Sweden's entry ban (holders of a student permit are exempt).

As a result, he was one of many forced to take multiple connecting flights, delaying the journey to Sweden and meaning he missed the orientation week.

He will be studying almost entirely online, and said: “The whole 'international student experience' experience will be less. Online learning leads to sharp drop in socialising and thus networking is really non-existent. [That leads to] low internship opportunities.”


The library at Uppsala University. Photo: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/Imagebank.sweden.se

Yue Jie, who is starting a Masters at Lund University, also faced difficulties travelling from his home country of Singapore.

“I was denied from transit through another EU country to Sweden. So I had to cancel that flight and take another flight that goes directly to Copenhagen without a transit,” he said.

He was pleased with the support offered by the university, particularly a housing guarantee which means he doesn't have to worry about finding a place to live, although he thought that the Arrival Days should have been extended to accommodate international students whose journeys were delayed.

“In my country, the use of face masks is compulsory everywhere you go, as long as it is outdoors. In Sweden, none of the locals seem to wear a mask. So it is interesting here.”

Ignacio, a student from Panama, said he had had to cancel his plans altogether.

“Because programmes have been changed [to be] online, we cannot apply for a resident permit. Embassies and consulates are not open to interview anyone aplying for permits, we feel [as if things are up] in the air even for 2021 semesters.”

As The Local has previously reported, some students have been left in limbo after Swedish embassies abroad closed, leaving them unable to get their residence permits.

In Iran, around 60 students have had their permit interviews postponed until January, but even then, several students who spoke to The Local said they're worried they won't go ahead, or would get their permits too late to attend the spring term – meaning they'd have to drop out of their course and lose their paid tuition fees.

When The Local asked the Foreign Ministry if they could offer any guarantees that the students would get their permits by a certain time, a press spokesperson said: “These bookings are preliminary and the Embassy continues to monitor the Covid-19 situation in Iran on a daily basis.” 

Raha and Maryam, two first year Masters students at Uppsala University, told The Local they had chosen to start their classes online rather than have their tuition fees refunded. 

But this leaves them facing a lot of uncertainty.

“I have paid my tuition fee in May and I have to pay my spring semester tuition fee before January, but I don't know if the immigration office will grant my resident permit. I have to register my daughter in school, which started from August 15th in Sweden,” said Maryam, who like many others felt that an alternative solution should have been found, such as an email or phone interview, or submission of further evidence.

One concern shared by many students was the slow internet speed in Iran hampering online learning. Programmes such as Zoom may not be accessible.

“The website of Chalmers university is unreachable because of the sanctions and I have to use bypass apps to get there. Preparing the course materials is another problem as we can not go to library or buy them,” said Nika, who emphasised that they had put a lot of time and money into his dream of studying at Chalmers University in Gothenburg. 

“I am forced to accept a big risk to register not knowing whether I will have the permit [in January] or not. I feel like no one cares.”

Thanks to all the students who responded to our survey; even if we could not include all the responses in this article, we read them all and will use them to inform future reporting. If you have questions or a story to share about studying or living in Sweden, get in touch with us at any time by emailing [email protected] and we will do our best to respond.

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IMMIGRATION

Sweden eases rules for international students during coronavirus pandemic

The Swedish Migration Agency has scrapped a rule that made it harder for international students to get a residence permit if their university moved classes online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sweden eases rules for international students during coronavirus pandemic
The Migration Agency has announced changes to its rules for student residence permits in Sweden. Photo: Adam Wrafter/SvD/TT

The Swedish Migration Agency has removed a previous requirement that student permit applicants physically be on campus for 50 percent of their course.

This means that unlike last year, in 2021 it will be easier for non-EU students to get a student permit despite many universities having switched to remote teaching due to corona. Normally, one of the requirements for a student permit is that the majority of teaching takes place on campus, which means distance teaching is usually not sufficient.

Swedish universities have generally been offering mostly distance teaching since mid-March last year, and many international students have told The Local that the many conflicting recommendations and requirements caused them a lot of stress, with time zones and travel restrictions causing problems for those who had to return to their home countries because they could not renew their permit. Meanwhile, many universities required students to be present on campus at the start of their course.

The Migration Agency said at the time that they were able to grant permits as long as most of the teaching was on-campus, and would try to interpret the rules generously.

But it will likely come as a relief to international students that the 50 percent in-person attendance requirement will now be removed for student residence permits in 2021.

The Migration Agency writes that “the starting point is still that you must stay in Sweden to complete your education” but that “the reason for the loosening of the rules is that attendance on campus cannot be decisive for the agency’s assessment of residence permits for full-time students, because higher education institutions have adapted their activities to national advice and recommendations based on the current situation”.

The exception will only apply to courses that would normally have been held in person, but have moved online due to the pandemic.

A previous exception that student permit holders no longer have to leave Sweden to apply for a new permit for the coming semester during the summer holidays when they are not studying will also be kept in place for 2021, said the Migration Agency.

Thirdly, it will be possible to receive a student permit for university education from August 1st, 2021, regardless of when the course starts. Normally, the permit is only valid from 14 days before the start of the semester.

“The purpose of the decision is to make it easier for higher education institutions to offer study preparation courses to their international students before the start of the semester,” writes the Migration Agency.

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