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IMMIGRATION

One year on: How Sweden’s new permit rule for PhDs has upended lives

In July last year, Sweden's new migration law tightened residency rules for PhD students, sending the future plans of thousands into disarray. The SACO union spoke to three of them about how their lives had been changed.

One year on: How Sweden's new permit rule for PhDs has upended lives
Chen (only second name submitted) said that she would not have applied ofr a PHD in Sweden if she’d known about the rule change. Photo: Private

Chen, 31, from China.

PhD on non-pesticide methods to reduce insect damage in newly-planted forests.

Chen, who came to Sweden from China in 2017 to study a the Swedish Agricultural University, says that she has felt trapped in Sweden since defending her thesis in November, as the Migration Agency does not normally allow those applying for a residency permit to travel 

“I feel like I’m under house arrest,” she complains. “I haven’t been able to take a vacation outside Sweden since my permanent residency application is pending, and I can’t go back to China to visit my family for the same reason — two years since the first Covid outbreak at the beginning of 2020.” 

Now the exemption from residency permit requirements for PhD students has been removed, PhD students generally need to get a job as soon as they graduate to show that they can support themselves, but Chen says she was so deeply engaged in her studies that it was near-impossible to send off job or research applications. 

“There are many days I woke up at 8am and left my office at midnight,” she remembers. “I ate for only one meal during the day in order to finish my thesis in time. I could barely spare any time to look for jobs or send job applications even though I knew I had to get a job offer for at least two years to get a positive decision on my permanent residency application. “

“After my defence, there was no time to celebrate my achievement but I instead started to search for jobs immediately.”

Before the change in the rules, Chen had planned to look for post doctoral studies in another European country, but the new rules makes that difficult. 

“My plan was to do a one or two year postdoc in another country to strengthen my competence and then come back to Sweden,” she said. It is rather common to do a postdoc in a new country and then come back to the PhD country for a more stable academic position,” she said. “By doing so we could broaden our vision, establish collaboration and bring back new insights.

“When we got permanent residency, returning to Sweden was easier, without having to go through all the energy-consuming stuff, like getting a job offer and applying for a work permit, getting a personal number, Swedish ID, bank account, Bank-ID and insurance.” 

She believes that the Swedish government should acknowledge that the impact of the new alien act on PhD students is a mistake and take steps to reverse the changes.

“Do not be afraid to admit that you made wrong decision, be open-minded and listen to different voices,” she tells the Swedish authorities. “There are ways to fix the mess and regain people’s trust.”

Now she’s considering whether to carry on seeking work and waiting for the Migration Agency to take its decision, or whether to take her expertise to another country, probably The Netherlands or Germany. 

“The way to regain my freedom is either to get a job that fulfils the new requirement or to leave Sweden to build my life and career somewhere else.” 

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Melissa, from Australia. Photo: private

Melissa, 36, Australia

PhD on riparian ecosystem science

“It’s brought a big, dark shadow of insecurity into mine and my partners’ long term plans,” says Melissa, who decided to do her PhD in Sweden partly because her partner is Swedish, and partly because she knew she would be “a better researcher and scientist” if she spent time researching in another country. 

When she arrived, she wasn’t necessarily planning to continue her research in Sweden, but as she began to realise she perhaps wanted to, the change in the law came in, making it more difficult. 

“Turns out, I really like it here and I like the research environment! I do want to stay in Sweden to pursue a career here. I knew that an academic career was already very unpredictable but I had hoped that after finishing my PhD I could continue branching out from the research I’ve been doing in boreal forests in the form of postdoctoral positions with some of the Swedish researchers I really admire.”

That is now all looking more and more unlikely. 

“It’s almost like there’s this atmosphere of uncertainty that’s with me when I think about life after my PhD,” she says. “It’s already stressful to think about what I will do when I finish my doctoral studies, but adding in the stress of possibly not being able to stay in Sweden is massively draining, especially when the Aliens Act seems to ignore, or not care to consider, the realities of an academic career.”

She believes that the Swedish government should at least adapt the Aliens Act to reflect what she calls “the realities of academic careers”. 

“It is virtually unheard of for a young researcher to gain a position that fulfils the support requirements for 18 months and by not adjusting the Aliens Act to account for this you are discouraging really talented and passionate young researchers from coming.”

Although she wasn’t set on staying in Sweden for the long term when she started her PhD, she’s finding the new barrier to residency is putting her off, pushing her to consider positions in Australia or the US. 

“I’m more hesitant about pursuing an academic career in Sweden because the added feeling of ‘temporary-ness’ in everything I do,” she says. “It even just manifests itself in little things like abandoning our plans to get a dog, buy a house, or have a more long term career goal in Sweden because permanency isn’t so much of an option anymore.” 

Tuser Biswas, from Bangladesh, is researching textiles at Borås Högskola. Photo: private

Tuser Biswas, 34, Bangladesh 

PhD on sustainably printing biological materials onto textiles which can fight bacteria and viruses

Tuser Biswas has also  had his plans to work as a postdoc outside Sweden thrown into chaos by the new law, which came out four months after he’d applied for permanent residency. 

After I finish my PhD in Sweden, I would like to go work somewhere else as a postdoc. When I started my PhD, I knew that if I want to go somewhere else, I could always come back to Sweden (and I probably would) but know I am not sure what I would do,” he says. 

Also, like Chen, he has been stuck in Sweden as a result of the law. 

“I’ve had to cancel attending conferences and still can’t plan work related trips outside Sweden. My family is very stressed for not being able to travel to home country for a long time now.”

He says that the change in labour laws has changed his views on Sweden. 

“The total political environment is getting unfriendly for international mobility. I came to live in an open-minded society, but it seems like a mirage now.” 

He believes that the government should better tailor its migration laws to fit researchers. 

“Don’t make a ‘one size fits all’ type law. The working conditions for PhD researchers and other employees are not the same. How can you judge them all under the same law?”. 

Member comments

  1. Good article about top notch researchers whom Sweden should feel lucky to attract and bend over backwards for those who would like to stay and pursue careers as researchers and professors. Seems like a win- win for Sweden and those interviewed. So why can’t the authorities get their act together and accommodate these people? C’mon!

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RESIDENCY PERMITS

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 in 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 be deemed sufficient proof of your Swedish skills, as would 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, would also be accepted under the proposals.

If you didn’t have any of those qualifications, there would 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?

The government has launched an inquiry, or utredning, into what the language and knowledge requirements should be for those seeking permanent residence permits in Sweden. The inquiry has a deadline of May 22nd 2023.

After the results of this inquiry are announced, the government will sent the proposal out for consultation from the relevant authorities. A bill, taking these responses into account, will then be submitted to parliament. 

For context, the 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 implements from the time it was first proposed. 

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.

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