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

'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
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.

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.

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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.” 

Member comments

  1. ” today in Sweden, around 40% of all doctoral candidates and around 75% of all staff with career-development positions (a position people have within a certain time after completing their doctoral degree) have a foreign background.” please read this article “New migration law will ‘harm Swedish research’ – Unions” at worlduniversitynews.com

    It is worth noting that just in December 2020, the Swedish government wrote that it wanted the proportion of international doctoral students who stay in Sweden to increase and that it was important to be able to both recruit them and retain the skills and competencies they possess within this country (Research, freedom, future-knowledge, and innovation for Sweden, Bill 2020/21: 60, p. 123). Despite this, only a few months later the proposals for changes in the Aliens Act were presented which will quite obviously lead to the opposite result.

  2. As a recent international PhD graduate who (thankfully) already had my permanent residence before this change, I think that an important part of the context that is missing is that academic postdoctoral researcher positions are often only for 1 year (sometimes with “possibility for extension”), and in any case are never permanent. This makes it very hard for PhD graduates who stay in academia to prove that they can support themselves for 18 months in the future. Furthermore, the last few months while finishing the PhD are a very difficult time to be conducting a job search, so many people will not already have a new job immediately when their student work permit runs out; they would then have to apply for a 1 year job-seeker residence permit. If they successfully get even a position with a 2-year contract after 2 months of search, then they will still have only 14 months remaining when they need to apply for a residence permit again.

    The fact that the modifications to the law apply even to students who decided to do a PhD in Sweden in part because of the possibility of getting permanent residence and eventually citizenship seems highly unfair. The old law was in place in order to help recruit students to Sweden with the promise of permanent residence. If the government thinks this isn’t an important priority anymore, that’s fair (although I personally disagree). But the change should not have been made to apply to students who already started doctoral studies in Sweden based on the promise of the old law. Sweden should keep its promises.

  3. Those with good marketable skills will indeed find jobs in Sweden after their Ph.D. studies, and receive residency and then citizenships. Those who studied less commercially useful subjects may need to go abroad to find work, perhaps as professors, college instructors in their subject of choice, or otherwise. Canada is particularly open to anyone with a credential and under the age of 35. Especially if they have children. Or, some of these academics can opt to do another degree in Canada and to use the time to search for a job. Which shouldn’t be too hard to find given the booming economy.

    Lots of options for Ph.D students. Happy to discuss more if anyone is interested.

    1. So @jack, your suggestion is that, all that can’t find a job right away have to go to Canada now?
      1) How does this solve their problem?
      2) Have you ever tried to get in to Swedish job market?
      3) Some have their families with the and after 4-5 years up rooting them isn’t as easy as “let’s pack our lives and go to Canada!”
      4) Why should they do that in the first place? They made a decision to come to Sweden, they haven’t accidentally ended up here!

      This last part isn’t about your comment Jack, but It baffles me why on earth PhD candidate should follow asylum applications laws?

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