7 out of 10 academics in Sweden are members of a union. Here’s why you should join one, too

As the repercussions of the Swedish government's controversial Aliens Act rumble on, international doctoral candidates and researchers in Sweden should make themselves aware of the benefits of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) union. Here's why.

7 out of 10 academics in Sweden are members of a union. Here's why you should join one, too

Many doctoral candidates and researchers in Sweden from overseas have not had a great last couple of years. First there was the pandemic that hugely disrupted their education and their work.

And then there’s the Swedish government’s Aliens Act, which could, almost unintentionally, end up expelling thousands of international PhD graduates and researchers from the country. 

There’s been some recent good news, however, with a new package of labour immigration laws containing some laws which could make it easier for certain immigrants to apply for a work permit in the country.

A new kind of residence permit, also referred to as a “talent visa”, will be introduced for certain highly-qualified, highly-educated individuals, which will certainly benefit some international academics in Sweden.

These changes have come following a long and painstaking campaign by the SULF union, which has been campaigning for the rights of its 22,000 international academic members in Sweden.

International academic? Find out more about the Swedish union just for you

Many of those international academics joined SULF to avail themselves of the union’s legal advice and various protections, but there are additional benefits to SULF membership that many members may not be aware of.

Paulina Rajkowska has been studying in Sweden for 10 years, first as a Master’s and now for her PhD in Human-Computer Interaction at Uppsala University. She joined SULF four years ago.

“Basically, all my friends were saying ‘you must join the union’, and ‘you must join so you can get your a-kassa unemployment benefits sorted out’ and that was it. That was the only reason I was given. I had no idea there was anything else to it.”

“The variety of benefits you get is wonderful, of course.”

As well as the income insurance, you’re entitled to free employment advice, as well as free legal insurance, and discounts off various insurances, including house insurance aimed especially at guest researchers.

But Paulina quickly learnt that was so much more to joining a union such as SULF.

“Trade unions are marginalised in Poland where I’m from. The unions have no say in employment or working conditions. So if you join a union, it’s more of an idealistic statement – like donating to a charity. It has no application to real life – none. But in Sweden unions are part of the fabric of society. They are an important part of the ‘Swedish Model’.”

The ‘Swedish Model’ is the catch-all term that describes several typically Swedish systems, including fundamental labour laws designed to protect workers’ rights.

David Rule, a lecturer in mathematics at Linköping University, and member of SULF

Based on the division of responsibilities between the state and trade unions, the two work in tandem to guarantee good working conditions and fair treatment of everyone working in Sweden.

As a result, 70 per cent of the Swedish workforce belongs to a union, compared to 10.3 per cent of American workers and 23.7 per cent of British workers.

The collective bargaining agreements (kollektivavtal) which form the basis of ‘the Swedish Model’ of the working conditions in each sector are determined by the trade unions and the employer organisations. The government rarely interferes, though it may set the boundaries through labour laws.

“This was one of the most striking things about moving to Sweden,” says David Rule, a lecturer in mathematics at Linköping University, and a member of the board for the university’s SULF branch.

“That’s why there is no minimum wage in Sweden – there is no need for one because unions work with the employers to ensure fair pay. It is absolutely nothing like the UK.”

When David first arrived in Sweden in 2012 he, like Paulina, was encouraged to join SULF

“I joined the union and then I was asked if I wanted to join a committee and I did because I was interested and then I soon realised that I could do good work. As a mathematician, I focus on my work and often go into my own little world, and for a while that’s all that really matters. But actually, there is a world outside of that. And there are important questions in that world.”

“How do we work together? What sort of university do we want? How can we make the university better? This is all work we can do in SULF. This is work that matters.”

David also became more aware of how important SULF’s work was with international doctoral candidates and researchers.

“There’s the question of just getting to know the system as an outsider. You’re not from Sweden, so you don’t know how pay negotiations work. You don’t know what rights you have. You don’t know how you can move on to the next stage of your career in Sweden. There’s a lot in common with other countries and academics do move around a lot, but nevertheless, everything’s very much affected by the local rules. So in that sense the union is set up to help people who are new to the country, so that they know what they need to know.”

Paulina Rajkowska is studying for her PhD in Human-Computer Interaction at Uppsala University

Are you an overseas researcher who wants to find out more about academic life in Sweden? Learn more about SULF

For Paulina the fact the union was a part of the national dialogue was an eye-opener.

“Soon after I joined SULF I was asked what I would like to change in the world. I was shocked that anyone was interested in my thoughts about this. And then I thought it would be nice if researcher employment was a bit more secure, and that we don’t have to constantly burn out. That would be amazing, right? If half of our department wasn’t on sick leave every half a year, that would be great.”

Paulina was also given the tools by the union to start work on these huge issues. “I was a little cynical that we could have any impact. But then the union said, ‘Let’s share some ideas, let’s write some articles, let’s reach out to people we want to support and try to make a difference’, and I think that feeling of being able to change things is everything to me. Just knowing that, if I put in this work, it’s not time wasted. It actually does reach someone and it does change something for someone. And very often that blows my mind.”

Sweden is very different to where Paulina studied before. “In Poland, you do not speak to your teacher until you are spoken to, you don’t ask questions, you show up for the exams, and then basically chase after the teachers and be nice to them, so they give you a good grade.”

David underlines how SULF works with universities to give students more input into the education process. “We’ve talked recently about how courses should be evaluated, and how students have the right to comment on courses and have some sort of influence on lectures. It’s important that students are listened to.”

Being in the union isn’t just about committees and work, however.

“It’s very sociable,” says Paulina. “Us academics are used to ploughing our own furrow, only meeting up with other people in our field. But being involved in the union means meeting people from all sorts of other disciplines. It’s so collaborative and fun and inspiring. And then there’s this idea that my work matters, and I can contribute to something bigger than myself. I assumed being in the union would be one thing but then once you get into it, it turns out it’s this whole new world.

“And it’s not what you thought it would be. It’s just so much more.”

Learn more about SULF and how 22,000 international academics and researchers in Sweden are already benefiting from membership

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What to do if you’re accused of cheating at university in Sweden

A student at Uppsala University was caught cheating with the help of ChatGPT this week. We look at what the rules are for students, if they are accused of cheating in Sweden.

What to do if you're accused of cheating at university in Sweden

The system is slightly different depending on whether you got caught cheating in an examination or in an essay, thesis or dissertation, and also whether you are accused of plagiarism, prohibited collaboration, or the use of prohibited aids. 

We looked at the procedure at Uppsala University, where the rules on cheating were last updated in 2014, so long before Chat GPT began to add whole new possibilities to cheating, and also the procedure at Stockholm University

It’s hard to know, for instance, if the use of Chat GPT should count as plagiarism (as its answers may well be unique), prohibited collaboration (as there is no actual person to collaborate with), or the use of prohibited aids.

Uppsala University, as it happens, has classified this week’s case as “use of prohibited aids”. 

If you are caught cheating in an exam 

If an examination invigilator suspects you of using prohibited aids during an exam, they must immediately tell the student that they are under suspicion. If the student has notes with them, or a device for contacting people outside the examination hall, these can be confiscated. 

The student can then, if they wish, finish the exam. 

Once the exam is over, the invigilator must contact the teacher responsible for the student, and then write a report detailing their suspicions. 

If you are caught plagiarising in an essay, thesis or dissertation

This is a lot more complex. 

Uppsala University distinguishes between two types of plagiarism, forbidden plagiarism, which is a legal matter, and plagiarism that is the result of carelessness or a misunderstanding, which it sees as an educational matter. 

A lecturer who suspects a work has been plagiarised, must together with the course examiner try to understand if the student has consciously tried to deceive the teacher, or has simply been guilty of bad academic writing that sticks too closely to its sources. 

What happens after the suspected cheating has been reported? 


The first thing that happens is that a conference is held between the student, their supervisors or lecturers, and the members of staff who have made the accusation. 

At the conference, the student is allowed to give as good an explanation of what happened as they can, and to present their view of what happened. The student is also informed of what the process is that might now be started. At this stage, the accusations and the student’s claims should be kept confidential. 

There may need to be further investigation to confirm or disprove any claims made by the student or their accusers. 

At Uppsala University, if there is “well-founded suspicion of attempted deceptive conduct”, then any decisions on examining the students work are deferred until after a decision. 

At Stockholm, though, the student can continue to participate in “instruction, examinations, and other activities related to his or her studies”, until a decision has been made. 

Stockholm, unlike Uppsala, details what happens when multiple students are involved. Each should be able to to give their own account. 

Matter dismissed

If the academic staff investigating the cheating decide that the plagiarism is either the result of carelessness or lack of knowledge, or that there has been some misunderstanding, then they need to submit an official memorandum detailing how they dealt with the claims.

Even if the cheating accusations are dismissed, the student may still be failed for the exam or assignment if the person marking it deems that it does “not measure up to the course goals”.

The formal report 

If the academic staff investigating the cheating decide that the plagiarism is not the result of carelessness or lack of knowledge, and that there was an intention to deceive, then the examiner and the head of department, or director of studies, have to submit a report. 

The report is addressed to the Vice Chancellor of the university, signed by the responsible head of department or director of studies, and submitted to the Registrar at the University Administration.

The department also needs to brief the student about what is in the report, and also give them information in writing. 

The student should also be put in contact with the right person at the student union to help them in their case. 

At Stockholm University, but it seems not Uppsala, the student can comment on the report. 

The Disciplinary Board

Both Uppsala and Stockholm University have a Disciplinary Board, which assign an officer to further investigate the case, and present their findings to the Vice-Chancellor. 

The Vice-Chancellor then, in consultation with the officer, decides whether to dismiss the matter without action, issue a formal warning to the student, or refer the matter to the Disciplinary Board. 

The board includes the Vice-Chancellor, a legally qualified member, a teacher representative and two representatives from the student unions.

At Stockholm, the student might be temporarily suspended once their conduct is submitted to the board. 

At the hearing a representative from the department concerned and the accused student can each make their case about what happened, after which they leave the room. 

The board then informs the student and his department on its decision, which can be to dismiss the student, give a warning, or to suspend the student from their studies, a decision which comes into force immediately. 

Stockholm says that suspension means the student is prohibited from “instruction, examinations, or any other activities related to courses and study programmes at Stockholm University” during the period of suspension.

They may also be forced to repay student grants and study loans covering the period of the suspension. 

The appeals process

Students have the right to appeal the decision to suspend them to Sweden’s Administrative Court (förvaltningsrätten), and can also apply for a “stay” of the decision while their case is held.