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How Sweden's Migration Act unexpectedly abandoned doctoral students

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
How Sweden's Migration Act unexpectedly abandoned doctoral students

It's hard to see anything positive for Sweden coming from the new residency rules imposed on foreign doctoral students under the Migration Act. So why are they there and why won't anyone get rid of them?


Sweden’s new Migration Act, introduced in July last year, stripped away an exception for non-EU/EEA foreign doctoral students brought in back in 2014 to encourage them to come and study in Sweden. Those seeking permanent residency in Sweden now need to show that they can support themselves financially for at least 18 months, starting from the time the Migration Agency examines their application.

As post-docs are frequently employed by universities on temporary contracts as short as six months, often extended annually, this will block the way for many, even most, foreign doctoral students who wish to stay in academia.

A survey in July by the Doctoral Students Committee of the Swedish National Union of Students found that fully 66 percent of non-EU/EEA researchers eligible for permanent residency were now considering moving elsewhere. Many told The Local that they felt betrayed

The law also means fewer foreign academics are likely to apply to research in Sweden in the first place, the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) argued, in an opinion piece for The Local in August. 

So how has this happened?

"This was simply overlooked by all parties because they had their eyes on other aspects of the immigration agreement," said Maria Nilsson, higher education spokesperson for the Liberal Party, who is campaigning to amend the law. 

The politicians thrashing out the legislation in the Migration Committee in the second half of 2019 and the first half of 2020 simply did not give doctoral students much thought, she argues. Their resulting report and recommendations titled "A long-term sustainable migration policy", published in September 2020, does not mention them once in its 684 pages.

The likely impact of any new law on doctoral students was also overlooked by the universities themselves. When Lund University and Stockholm University responded to the report, both submitted detailed legal assessments of the impact on asylum seekers, but entirely missed the potential impact on their own researchers.


"They got caught up in the very heated public debate and wanted to give their view on those topics, and therefore they also overlooked the specific target groups which should have been their main concern," Nilsson adds. "Since the universities in their replies didn't raise the issue, it never became one for the politicians inside the committee." 

The impact of the new Migration Act on doctoral students looks very much like the result of an omission – the exception made for them in 2014 was not carried over into the new legislation – rather than because they were singled out in any way.

"I don't think that there was ever any specific idea that 'we want to make it harder for this group'," says Robert Andersson, SULF's chief negotiator. "They wanted to make it harder for asylum seekers, but they didn't realise what kind of effects it would have."

'Everything went so fast'

The Local also initially missed it. When we analysed the impact of the proposals on foreigners living in Sweden, we, like the Swedish language media, focused on proposals for a language and citizenship test, and on the tough requirements for permanent residency for asylum seekers.

It appears only one organisation spotted the problem in advance: SULF, the union for university lecturers and researchers. 

"When we started to read it, we saw this general rule for a maintenance requirement, but then we were not appointed as an organisation that was able to comment on this," Andersson says. They sent a submission anyway, outlining the likely impact on universities.

"The introduction of such requirements, primarily the maintenance requirement, for highly qualified people who work at our universities," they wrote in December 2020, "could mean that many such people will be forced to leave the country or will refrain from coming here to conduct research or undergo postgraduate education."

The association argued that unless universities were required to give doctoral students permanent employment contracts rather than contracts linked to scholarships or grants, they should be excused from the maintenance requirements.

"Our answer was not published on the government's web page," Andersson says. "They said that they would consider it, but I don't think they did."


According to Andersson, the Social Democrats were utterly fixated on getting a new permanent Migration Law voted through parliament before July 20th, when the temporary Migration Law introduced after the refugee crisis was set to expire. "Everything went so fast, because they wanted this to be in force before July 20th."

Also, at that stage, there was no indication of how exacting the maintenance requirement would be. Would it be six months, 12 months, or 18 months? Would it apply only to those applying for permanent residency after the law came into force or would it also apply to those who had already applied and not yet received a decision?

These details wouldn't be decided until the Migration Agency in July outlined how the law would be applied, setting the maintenance requirement at 18 months, and applying it even to those who had already applied.

So it was only in mid-August, when unions and university leaderships returned from their summer holidays, that the impact on doctoral students started to be widely recognised. 

The Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions argued in a letter sent to Sweden's justice minister at the time, Morgan Johansson, that the impact on doctoral students looked like an oversight.

"That those framing the law have failed to spot the impact of the change in the law on Sweden's doctoral students and researchers is made absolutely clear by the fact that the proposition (...) does not mention doctoral students at all," the association wrote.


So what happens now?

In September, the Liberal Party proposed bringing back the 2014 exception for non-EU/EEA researchers and doctoral students, raising the issue in the parliament's Social Insurance Committee, which has jurisdiction over migration.

To do this, they proposed voting an amendment to the law through parliament. But they only got support from the Centre Party and the Left Party, with both the Social Democrats and Moderates, the two biggest parties in parliament, refusing to back them. 

The Social Democrats have even defended the inclusion of doctoral students, arguing that the law strikes "a reasonable balance". Morgan Johansson, who was migration minister until this month, refused to meet SULF or the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF) to discuss the issue.

Maria Nilsson, the higher education spokesperson for the Liberal Party, argues that the biggest split in parliament is between the politicians focused on higher eduction, who all see how damaging the requirement will be, and those focused on migration, who tend to see it as a minor detail. 

"It wouldn't need to require a new round of negotiations," she says of the failed amendment. "But I think one of the reasons the Social Democrats and the Moderates did not vote in favour of our initiative is because they are afraid that if we start to mess with one aspect of the new Migration Law, it will open up the whole act for new discussions and new negotiations." 

The government could also ask the Migration Agency to change its decision on how to apply the law, for example by reducing the necessary maintenance requirement to 12 months or six months. However experts say it is unlikely it will be accepted, because it would have to apply to all applicants, not just doctoral students.

SULF, SUHF, and the Confederation of Swedish Industry, all continue to raise the issue. Nilsson argues that the key task now is to stop the issue being forgotten.

"Our main challenge is to keep this on the agenda," she says. "It was really in the public eye a month or two ago, but then it fell back."

But Andersson at SULF suspects the Social Democrat government will take some convincing. "It's always hard to admit, 'OK, we made a mistake. We have to correct something'," he says. "And I think they are afraid to make any changes, because it might look like they are soft on the immigration issues." 


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