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Foreign doctoral candidates fall victim to political logic

Per-Olof Eliasson

Despite a stated goal of Swedish politicians to attract and retain highly qualified labour, they are now doing exactly the opposite.

In July 2014, an amendment was made to the Aliens Act to make it possible for foreign doctoral candidates who have had a residence permit for four years to apply for and obtain a permanent residence permit. That possibility was removed in practice by a parliamentary decision in July 2021. Now, in order to be granted a permanent residence permit, applicants need to have an employment contract lasting at least 18 months, which is almost unattainable for young researchers.

The decision was made despite the government stating in its 2020 Research Bill, (page 123), that ”more foreign doctoral candidates should remain in Sweden”.

The change in the law that was made in July this year thus goes against the Swedish government’s own stated policy. That this is the case had already been pointed out in the report, (page 400), which provided the basis for the change in the law:

”Sweden’s relative attractiveness for certain internationally sought-after groups, such as the highly qualified, people with qualifications for professions where there is a shortage of labour or researchers, (may be) reduced somewhat as a result of the proposals.”

In its response at the consultation stage, SULF emphasized that the bill runs the risk of worsening the conditions for younger researchers and reducing Sweden’s attractiveness to researchers, as reported on by Universitetsläraren.

So it was with open eyes that the government presented the Bill and the parliament passed the change in the law. It is therefore not ignorance, but reversed political logic that has led to an almost unanimous parliament supporting the change to the law. Only one party voted against, the Left Party.

If, after the influx of refugees in 2015, it was a matter of signalling that there is no point in seeking asylum in Sweden, it is now just as much a signal policy on migration aimed at voters.

Politicians clearly do not consider themselves politically able to argue that certain groups should be exempted from stricter migration legislation. Even if, as is the case for this government, it is contrary to its own policy.

I assume that the political calculation looks something like this: Not excluding foreign doctoral candidates and other foreign researchers from the stricter legislation is a small risk in terms of public opinion. The size of the group is negligible, and they do not even have the right to vote. Making things more difficult for them will likely put off very few voters. Furthermore, where can those people who disagree with the decision turn? The parliament was almost unanimous in its support for the change to the law.

But even in today’s complicated parliamentary situation and emotional tone in the migration debate, we should be able to expect politicians to be able to hold two thoughts in their minds at the same time. It is clear that it is not the group of newly qualified foreign PhD graduates that they wish to target when the requirements for obtaining a permanent residence permit are tightened.

Because if you turn the matter around and try to look at the issue logically, it seems counterproductive that doctoral candidates and other early-career researchers will find it more difficult to remain in Sweden. There are no winners, because as a group they are highly sought after, both in higher education and by the corporate sector, and they could be expected to make a positive contribution to Sweden’s growth for many years to come.

But obviously there is a difference between political logic and other kinds of logic. And judging by the responses from the Ministers responsible that Universitetsläraren has received, they do not intend to act to bring about changes to the law. Especially in today’s debate climate, it does not seem to be part of politicians’ vocabulary to say ”this didn’t turn out as we intended, so we will try to change that as soon as possible”.

But perhaps, when some water has flowed under the bridge, we can hope that Ministers and other politicians will rethink the matter and introduce reasonable requirements regarding the duration of foreign researchers’ means of financial support.

Per-Olof Eliasson is a journalist who worked for many years at Universitetsläraren and who periodically writes topical opinion pieces for

Per-Olof Eliasson

Universitetsläraren conforms strictly to journalistic principles and follows the media industry’s rules on publication and professional ethics. The magazine is free and independent of its owner, SULF – the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers.
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