Sweden risks brain drain with ‘crazy’ post-PhD residency rules

New requirements to ensure migrants are financially self-sufficient will ‘weaken’ Sweden’s universities and high-tech industries, critics warn

September 13, 2021
Ariel view of The Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland showing an enclosed room as a metaphor for Sweden risks brain drain with ‘crazy’ post-PhD residency rules
Source: Getty

Sweden’s “crazy, political and short-sighted” new restrictions on granting permanent residency to foreign doctoral students are likely to lead to a brain drain that will harm its universities and knowledge economy, scholars have warned.

Until recently, non-European Union doctoral students were eligible for a permanent residence permit if they had lived in Sweden for four of the past seven years, setting them on the path to citizenship.

However, this situation changed in July when new laws to control asylum seeker numbers came into effect, meaning that all non-EU foreign nationals seeking permanent residency must have either a permanent job or one lasting at least 18 months.

As postdoctoral research positions in academia or industry rarely last longer than a year, although they can be extended on a rolling basis, the new rules could cause an exodus of overseas doctoral graduates, warned Jenny Iao-Jörgensen, chair of Sweden’s National Doctoral Candidate Association, part of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers.

“Sweden has some major ambitions to build its knowledge economy – and to retain more of its foreign doctoral students – so this is really shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Ms Iao-Jörgensen, a PhD student at Lund University, who believes that as many as 3,000 international doctoral students or recent PhD graduates will be affected by the rule change.

Given Sweden’s expensive PhD training model, in which doctoral candidates are formally recognised as staff and paid an annual salary of up to SKr414,000 (£34,705), roughly double the stipend awarded to funded PhD students in the UK, the move to toughen permanent residency requirements also made little sense, added Ms Iao-Jörgensen.

“It’s throwing away SKr12-18 billion that taxpayers have invested in this group and giving it to other countries that will surely welcome them,” she said, adding that 80 per cent of international doctoral candidates were based in scientific subjects.

“It is particularly unfair because many of these doctoral candidates moved with their families to Sweden precisely because they understood our residency rules, which have now changed – and, in some cases, only weeks before they were due to graduate.”

Sweden’s Justice Ministry has defended the changes, saying they represent a “reasonable balance which contributes to Sweden having sustainable legislation in the long term which does not differ significantly from other EU countries”.

The new requirements have, however, recently been criticised by university leaders, with Ole Petter Ottersen, director of Sweden’s top-ranked university, the Karolinska Institute, telling University World News that “over time these new measures will weaken Sweden as a research nation”.

“We are at risk of losing this [research] competence to other countries. Can Sweden afford this?” he added.

The personal distress and uncertainty caused to early career researchers by these new rules should also not be overlooked, said Ms Iao-Jörgensen.

“You can point out how crazy, political and short-sighted these rules are when applied to doctoral graduates, but it also matters that this is already causing a lot of anxiety to PhD candidates, particularly those in the final stage of their doctorate,” she said.

“Many have told me how they find it very hard to focus on writing up or their viva given the huge uncertainty they now face.”


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