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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?

How Sweden's Migration Act unexpectedly abandoned doctoral students
A researcher at the graphene lab at Gothenburg's Chalmers Institute: Photo: Sofia Sabel/Imagebank Sweden

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.” 

Member comments

  1. This is a very important issue. I met many young PhDs who are really affected by this. All parties should take this seriously for the betterment of Sweden.

  2. It might be very reasonable to limit residency status and immigration to those with relevant skills to the job market. Ph.D’s in certain areas of computing science and biomedical research, for example, might well be very employable. While those in various other fields especially certain areas of the arts, politics and others may stand little chance of gaining employment in their field (and possibly in any other field).

    Additionally, granting ALL Ph.D’s residency and a path to citizenship is akin to handing immigration policy to school administrators. It invites corruption and other problems.

    Sweden is an advanced nation with a very modern economy. It doesn’t need more Ph.D.s in many subjects or areas. It needs specialised skills in very limited areas. Immigration policy should reflect these needs, and not the needs of the Ph.D’s (regardless of their field of study).

    1. Jack, I think you are missing the point here.

      Many of the Doctoral Candidates and Post Doctoral researchers that this policy affects ARE employed (hence, “needed” in Sweden). However, since the way that universities employs and pays researchers (via rolling contracts that are renewed every 12 months or via scholarships) they don’t meet the criteria to demonstrate that they can support themselves.

      Your comments about Sweden being an advanced nation and associated implications about not needing PhDs is odd. Doctoral Candidates, Post Doctoral researchers, and people with PhD’s are the people who teach at universities. Would you argue that an advanced nation doesn’t need university teachers? If not, we need PhD students!

      Furthermore, the whole system of scientific research collapses if we don’t get new researchers in at the bottom (because the older ones eventually retire). While Sweden might be able to supply new researchers from its own population, they would, by definition, not be the best in the world and, hence, Sweden’s universities and research would be worse off.

      1. Hi Carys,
        Thanks for getting back to me. I appreciate the dialogue.

        A few quick points in response:
        (1) Regarding your “hence needed” perspective: They probably aren’t needed – especially in many subjects – or they would be able to secure full-time / long-term employment. If they are only needed in 12 month stints – it doesn’t seem they can meet the criteria. And shouldn’t be given permanent status in the country.

        (2) I didn’t say Sweden doesn’t need PhDs. I suggested that Sweden doesn’t need PhD’s in certain subject areas, and that holding a PhD shouldn’t be an automatic path to permanent resident and citizenship. Some PhDs will have no problem meeting the new standards. Others will struggle. fine.

        (3) Regarding the need for university teachers – Sweden clearly doesn’t need ALL PhD graduates to become teachers, professors or lecturers. Perhaps one in every 30 or 40 PhD graduates is needed as a professor. And then those very few who are hired will then hang around for decades, pumping students through the system with freshly minted masters and PhDs every year. Not every freshly minted PhD will get a job teaching, and probably shouldn’t.

        Advanced education is a giant pyramid scheme with too many students going through the system and too few teaching positions in the universities. Students, including foreign students, need to learn to accept this. (but they can always go to Canada…).

        Please look up some youtube video’s by PhD, academic and venture capitalist Brett Weinstein in the US. He talks about the pyramid scheme of higher education at length in some of his YouTube videos.

        (4) Regarding recruiting the best: The best PhD students mostly go to the US anyway. Stanford, Harvard, Yale etc. Or to the UK (Cambridge, Oxford etc). So the last paragraph is a stretch and probably nonsense.

        Thanks again.

  3. Many of these Ph.D’s should also consider immigrating to Canada after completing their studies in Sweden. It’s a modern nation with high standards of living. And immigration is pretty much wide open in Canada. If you are under 35 and have an advanced degree, you can move to Vancouver (which is relatively warm), to Toronto (which is a large city with a bustling economy), or to Montreal (a large city with French cultural influences – but it is cold).

    Don’t despair. There are many options for Ph.D’s who can’t get residency in Sweden. Canada is an option.

  4. Hej alla!

    This is just to inform everyone that “Jack” has a history of posting hateful comments under virtually every article that has anything to do, even remotely, with immigration. He makes no difference between educated and non-educated. Although he is an immigrant himself, he mockingly calls non-ethnic Swedes “the new Swedes”. He is just afraid of foreigners, especially if they are smart and competent.

    Just to give you a few examples, once he was showing concern for the remote possibility of foreign people getting high positions in companies due to non-existent diversity rules. Under another article, he was accusing foreign-born medical doctors of having entered universities undeservingly and due to connections. Somewhere else he accused people who haven’t been able to travel and see their parents due to Covid of having a hidden plot to bring their family into Sweden for good.

    He thinks he cares for the Swedish society and respects it but fails to see that the average Swede is several orders of magnitude more rational and integrated than he is. Jack always pretends that he cares about us too and offers us help to move to Canada! If you look up the articles on PhD students on The Local, you can see that he is desperately doing his Canada thing everywhere, while he has no idea about PhD studies and higher educations. In reality, he just wants fewer foreigners here. I have advised him to get competent and stop hating on others, to no avail.

    So, in summary, please save your breath and don’t try to have a “dialog” with this guy. The last thing he cares about is your opinion.


    1. Thanks SR for not staying silent! I’m also appalled by Jack’s comments for his lack of understanding and his hatred against other migrants. Obviously, he blinds himself to the reality he’s living. But this is not uncommon among migrants who desperately need to prove themselves closer to the white world.

    2. Hi SR,

      Thanks for this.

      I appreciate your comments as they again demonstrate your inability to interact with anyone holding opinions even slightly different than your own. This topic is a fairly simple matter of policy, and I have presented time and again some reasons why the new approach isn’t all that unreasonable (including that the previous rules invited corruption within the academy, for example, and others).

      I’ve also frequently offered my advice regarding other options for Swedish Ph.D. students, and suggested that they shouldn’t despair. Opportunities abound for those with the initiative and creativity needed to capture them. The world is their oyster, as the old saying goes.

      One such example of this is my offering you advice regarding other immigration options, especially Canada. Yet, your responses are close-minded and negative in almost every respect. You reject all reasonable dialogue. You bully others, while I remain positive. In this, you not only miss a potential learning opportunity, but you deny the information from others reading this forum.

      I have serious doubts that you are an “academic” in any respect as you demonstrate none of the qualities. You are instead, in my view, a classic internet bully seeking to shame and silence others, while forgoing all reasonable dialogue even when they offer you advice and tips that might well change your life, or the lives of those around you, for the better. You should be ashamed of yourself.

      1. @Jack. What I said is entirely based on my interaction with you and observing your comments over the course of several months. That will not give me the full picture, but that is the concrete evidence I have at hand.

        I did try to have an open-minded dialogue with you already on 16th of May 2021, please see reference [1]. Under that article, you simply ignored all my arguments in response to your own comments that were full of negativity towards immigrants. Instead, you shifted the conversation to “you seem to be unhappy in Sweden, you should go to Canada”. That was a turning point where I realized it’s of little use to have a dialogue with you. Then I decided to avoid having any arguments with you and stayed silent.

        But then later under another article, you were bashing foreign students and other immigrants for wanting to see their families. Please see reference [2]. You accused them of having one goal, to bring their families into the nation. Even the editor of The Local spoke up and asked you to keep it polite, which you refused and insisted on your opinion. Fine, but it just showed that you lacked any compassion and just outright despised immigrants. The way you wrote there was not exactly as you describe yourself as someone who tries to “remain positive”. Clearly, you behaved like someone who could not tolerate an opinion “slightly different” than yours.

        Then later when the whole problems with the new rules for permanent residency for PhD students surfaced, you resumed your whole “go to Canada” scheme in a very twisted manner. First, you discredited PhD studies and called at least some of them totally useless [3] and then proposed that people should not “despair” and should go to Canada. I find it hard to believe that you have good intentions with your offers of help to move to Canada. How could you bluntly call a degree useless and then try to give hope to the degree holder and tell them they should move to another country? You fail to see that the problem is not about securing employment [4] and the usefulness of PhDs [3]. Many have tried to clarify it for you, for example, see [5], to which you did not respond, and comments of Carys Egan-Wye under this very same article and how you have dismissed their point. Calling their last paragraph ‘nonsense’ does not help either.

        The way I see it you want to get rid of the immigrants, educated and uneducated alike. Your sympathy for the anti-immigration party SD just reinforces that belief, see reference [6]. Even there, you are trying to send people to Canada in your comments, if they don’t like the current immigration rules. Maybe you genuinely had good intentions, but I have a hard time believing it.

        That being said, I still feel sad that we are having a conversation like this. I wish things were not this way and we could be nicer towards each other, and I don’t blame you for that. I wish I could be more tolerant of the kinds of things you say, but the pain is unsurmountable and need to speak up. I hope this text would qualify me as an academic in your eyes, even if my PhD is useless and has been obtained through universities with a “pyramid scheme” according to you. Take care.


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For members


What do we know about Swedish language tests for residence permits?

Sweden's ruling party, the Social Democrats, has proposed bringing in Swedish language tests for residence permits. When could these come into effect, and just how good will your Swedish need to be?

What do we know about Swedish language tests for residence permits?

How good will your Swedish need to be?

The government is proposing that applicants for permanent residence will need to show an ability in Swedish equivalent to level C at SFI (Swedish for Immigrants), the third and penultimate level of the SFI programme. This means they will need to have reached a fairly high ability, and be able to speak, listen, read and write Swedish in the “ordinary situations” they will meet in everyday life, while studying and at work.

Children or very old people who cannot be expected to learn what is needed will be exempted from the new rules.

How can I prove I speak Swedish?

If you went to a Swedish school and passed Grade 9 or upper secondary school, this will count as sufficient proof of your Swedish skills, as will the same level of education at a Norwegian or Danish school. 

For those who moved to Sweden as adults or those who did not attend Swedish school, proof that you have completed SFI level C would be sufficient. Passing the TISUS test, which is used to show you have a good enough grasp of Swedish to study at university, will also be accepted under the proposals.

If you didn’t have any of those qualifications, there will be the option of taking a specific language test for a residence permit, which currently does not exist.

Is this for all residence permits?

No, this is just for permanent residence permits, also referred to as PUT from the Swedish permanent uppehållstillstånd.

In 2019, the government appointed an inquiry into similar requirements for becoming a Swedish citizen.

The suggested details of that proposal were announced in 2021 and are still under consultation, but under those rules, applicants would need to complete SFI level D, the highest level of the SFI course.

Are there any other tests you’ll need to pass?

Yes – the government are also proposing making those applying for permanent residence pass a so-called “citizens test”, making sure they have a basic knowledge of Swedish society and culture. 

It’s not clear exactly what this test will entail, but Sweden’s migration minister, Anders Ygeman, said when announcing the proposal that those seeking residence would be tested on their “basic knowledge on the laws and principles which are the foundation of Swedish society”.

When would the test be introduced?

It is likely that it will take at least a year, perhaps longer, for the new language requirement proposal for permanent residence permits to come into force.

This is due to the length of the process a proposal must go through before it is formally introduced.

The proposal is currently in the first stage, where the government launches an inquiry, or utredning, into what the language and knowledge requirements should be for those seeking permanent residence permits in Sweden. The deadline for this stage is May 22nd 2023.

After the results of this inquiry are announced, the government will send the proposal out for consultation from the relevant authorities. A bill, taking these responses into account, will then be submitted to parliament. This could take months or even years, meaning that the proposal would not become law until at least a year from now.

For context, the separate 2019 inquiry into the introduction of language tests for citizenship is still under consultation from relevant authorities, with a suggested implementation date of January 1st, 2025, meaning it will have taken six years to be implemented from the time it was first proposed.