Around 3 000 doctoral students are affected by the new migration law, according to Jenny Iao-Jörgensen, who chaired the doctoral students’ section within SULF, the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers, until the beginning of October. She thinks that doctoral students, and also postdocs, are affected particularly severely by the hardened requirements, due to the insecure employment conditions in academia.
“The Government insists of treating everybody the same, but the outcome is not fair. Those who work outside academia have great opportunities for getting permanent employment after four years, but finding a contract lasting 18 months after four years of doctoral studies is unusual.”
She herself came to Sweden from China as a master’s student 15 years ago, and can easily relate to the situation that doctoral students without permanent residence permits now find themselves in. Over the last few months, she has spoken to many doctoral students who are considering whether to leave academia, or Sweden.
Brain drain from Swedish HEIs
Jenny Iao-Jörgensen points out that as recently as in December 2020, the Government established that it wanted to increase the proportion of foreign doctoral students that remain in Sweden. This is written into the Goverment bill called “Forskning, frihet, framtid – kunskap och innovation för Sverige” (“Research, freedom, future – knowledge and innovation for Sweden”).
“Just a few months later, we then had the new migration law, which produces the entirely opposite effect. This is very strange. Many foreign doctoral students work in areas where the need for competence is urgent, such as in medicine or engineering sciences. The consequence now is that fewer are staying. In the longer term, the law will also mean that Swedish doctoral student position become less attractive. This will lead to a ‘brain drain’ from Swedish universities.”
She is surprised that the higher education institutions (HEIs) have not reacted more strongly to the new law. Considering the worry that many doctoral students are now experiencing, she thinks that it constitutes a work environment problem. She also thinks that the HEIs should be more worried about the law leading to them losing important competence.
An exception is needed
Now, in early autumn, Jenny Iao-Jörgensen has noticed that some HEIs have issued statements where they recognise how the law is affecting researchers, but she would like to see a stronger reaction.
“We are seeing that HEIs are in some cases considering offering longer contracts to meet the requirements of the Swedish Migration Agency, and that is good, but we want to see a wider solution. An exception is needed for this group, because we cannot expect the employment forms in academia to change,” she says.
She is particularly critical to the law changing the preconditions for researchers who have applied for doctoral student positions in Sweden, in the belief that their employment will gain them a permanent resident permit. It would be more reasonable to make the law come into force for those who are applying for doctoral student positions now, after the new law has been passed, she thinks.
A particularly vulnerable group are doctoral students doing research in subjects that are sensitive in their home countries, Jenny Iao-Jörgensen thinks.
“They have come to Sweden in search of academic freedom. The knowledge that they would get a permanent resident permit has provided the security that has enabled their research. These researchers are now very worried. They have ended up in a situation where they must apply for political asylum, and, if they are sent home, they risk being arrested because of their research.”
The Minister for Research about the law
Matilda Ernkrans, Minister for Higher Education and Research in Sweden, has commented on the criticism against the new migration law via email. She points out the temporary employment positions in academia as the fundamental problem:
“When it comes to the maintenance requirement for permanent resident permits, then clear career paths and good conditions for study and work in higher education are a priority area for reform, for me and for the Government. In some places, there is a high proportion of temporary positions, which are not part of the higher education career structure, and which can become a dead end for the individual. This risks creating insecurity and lack of clarity, and the Government therefore considers that this type of employment should be reduced.”
She also writes that she, as minister, will continue to monitor the issue:
“International students and researchers are important knowledge bearers, and contribute to a strong society. It is therefore important that we provide good conditions for attracting these persons to Sweden.”