Previously, doctoral students were eligible for a permanent residence permit if they had lived in Sweden with a residence permit for doctoral studies for four out of the past seven years. Apart from a slim set of requirements, this was granted more or less automatically.
But according to Sweden’s new Migration Act, which was introduced in July this year as comprehensive legislation to control the number of asylum applications, they now need to be able to additionally show that they can support themselves financially for at least a year and half. The new law means that the rules for permanent residency are now the same for all categories of applicants, including doctoral students.
The Migration Agency explains on its website: “This means that you must have permanent employment or fixed-term employment lasting at least 18 months from the date on which your application is examined. In some cases, trial employment may also be approved.”
The same rules also apply to self-employed people. Exemptions may be granted, but only in a limited number of cases, for example if you are under the age of 18, old enough to receive a pension, or if there are “special grounds” for why you can’t support yourself financially.
The income needs to come from legal employment in Sweden, so income such as savings or returns on capital, unemployment insurance or stipends aren’t taken into account. Temporary sick leave or parental leave benefits may in some cases count, however.
The new rules came into force on July 20th, but will apply to everyone who has applied for permanent residency and had not received a decision by that date. That includes Parastoo Taghikhani, from Iran, who is in her fifth year at Chalmers University and is currently waiting for a decision on her permanent residency request. She applied in January 2021 – six months before the new rules came into force.
“My plan was to find a job in Sweden. I like my field of study and I enjoy Sweden’s working environment. After the new set of rules was published, Sweden is still one of my choices. However, I’ve started to think about not limiting myself to Sweden and search for jobs in other countries,” she told The Local.
Many students said that they had chosen to pursue their research in Sweden specifically for the opportunity to stay permanently, in some cases turning down more lucrative offers in other countries. This opportunity was introduced in 2014 to attract international talent to Sweden.
“From my perspective, introducing new requirements is unfair,” said Iman Ghotbi, also from Iran, at Lund University. “Especially for current PhD students who started their studies in different conditions. They made their choice of university and PhD programme partly by looking into migration policies. I believe it will hugely affect the number and quality of PhD applicants in the future, not to mention the brain drain.”
The new rules mean that doctoral students who still plan to apply for permanent residency are left with little time to find an 18-month job offer. Several students told The Local of difficulties finding a job while completing a PhD, not to mention the fact that it is only possible to apply for permanent residency 14 days before their current doctoral permit runs out – leaving a short window for starting a new job.
“I personally do not know of any PhD graduate who has managed to get this kind of secure employment. Most of my graduate friends are working at hourly rates or on short-term contracts. Gig workers. So most will now be locked into temporary residence permits for years, which makes life very uncertain, particularly for those PhDs with a family to think about,” said Stuart Reid from Australia, in the final year of his PhD at Lund University. He has been living in Sweden with his wife and three children since 2017, and said they had bought an apartment and a car and were planning to stay in Sweden in the long term, which they now aren’t sure will still be possible for them.
Rashmi Mahajan, from India, is in the fourth year of her doctoral studies at Linneaus University. Her current permit will expire in early October, which means that if she wants to stay in Sweden beyond that, she will have to apply for her next permit by mid-September.
“Now, being at the end stage of my PhD with less than a month left, how can I arrange this long period of contract? The last stage of this degree has its own pressures, what with the need to finish the lab work, write papers alongside the thesis and then prepare of the defence of the thesis. How will a person have enough time to look for a job?”
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Other options do exist, but are far less generous. Overseas students and researchers who wish to stay and work in Sweden after finishing their courses can apply for a special temporary permit which allows them to stay for one year to look for a job or set up their own business.
But several doctoral students told The Local that the uncertainty of applying for a series of temporary permits meant they might have to reassess their future plans. Many also pointed out that the requirement to show you can support yourself for a full 18 months makes it virtually impossible to continue a career in academia, where contracts are often renewed annually, especially for junior researchers.
“When we chose our PhD, we were told that we could get the permanent permits directly after graduation,” said Yifei Zhang, who is due to apply for permanent residency in November. He called the changing conditions for doctoral students “a lie and betrayal, and unfair”.
Julie Holeksa, from Canada, is in her third year of a PhD at Malmö University.
She said: “Until the introduction of the new rules, I had planned to remain in Sweden indefinitely. I hoped to become a citizen and engage in academic work here as a career. I would prefer to remain here because I enjoy my work, my colleagues, the lifestyle, and working in a Swedish context. The Swedish research environment has been very supportive to me and provided numerous opportunities, which I would like to be able to pursue in the long term. These new rules put into question whether I will be able to remain in Sweden, or if I will have to pursue a career elsewhere.
“One thing that attracted me to Sweden was the relative ease with which I would become a permanent resident, and thus eventually a citizen, throughout my doctoral studies. This gave me a sense of security to put down roots in my adopted country. The ability to become a citizen certainly was one of the drivers for my choice to pursue my career in Sweden, as I had promising ongoing applications in other countries.”
Mohammad Abuasbeh from Jordan, a doctoral student at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, had been due to apply for his permanent residence permit in September. He said the future plans that he had made in the past decade were now all up in the air.
“If not corrected very soon, I feel extremely disappointed or even betrayed by the Swedish government,” he wrote.
Sandra Donnally, an economics researcher from the US, said: “I imagine that this situation will negatively affect the mental health of an already very stressed group of people. I know this was not the Swedish parliament’s or the Migration Agency’s intention, however, it bears mentioning nonetheless.
“Having lived here for six years, I do still love Sweden, Swedish culture, even Swedish bureaucracy. However, it makes me feel like I am in a kind of abusive relationship – I am subject to the whims of a government that usually makes sensible and well-reasoned policies. But in this case, as an immigrant, I feel I am part of a population that has little to no standing in the public sphere.”
You can read more about the new migration law on The Local, and the requirements for doctoral students applying for permanent residency on the Migration Agency’s website. Thank you to everyone who got in touch with us for this article. We received more than 25 emails from readers in this situation, so were not able to include all comments, but they all helped inform our reporting.