“The universities have proven themselves unable to manage the situation, so we think it’s time for the government to step in,” Lars Abrahamsson, chair of the doctoral candidates committee with the Swedish Association of University Teachers (SULF) told The Local.
Both SULF – a union which represents university researchers and lecturers – and Sweden’s association of student unions (Sveriges förenade studentkårer - SFS) are intensifying their demands for foreign researchers' equality following a report on the Sveriges Television (SVT) investigative news programme Uppdrag Granskning.
“We’re seeking a national debate on these issues and we are asking that institutes of higher learning actually fulfill their responsibilities and guarantee that doctoral candidates receive reasonable financing,” said Martin Dackling of SFS in a statement.
According to SVT, Swedish universities offer much more favourable employment conditions to most Swedish PhD candidates in comparison to those offered many researchers from other countries.
While Swedish doctoral candidates are often offered full time employment with a starting salary of around 23,000 kronor ($3,200) per month and full social benefits, foreign researchers are often forced to live on stipends averaging about half as much – and without access to the social benefits afforded other Swedish workers.
“In Sweden, equal competence and equal work should give equal compensation, both in terms of salary and social benefits,” Abrahamsson told The Local.
“What sort of picture of Sweden do we want to present to foreign researchers about our country?”
Abrahamsson explained that the workplace disparities facing foreign doctoral candidates have been known for a long time, but that the problem has become worse in recent years in tandem with an increase in the number of foreign researchers following the signing of bilateral exchange agreements with China and Pakistan.
The agreements call upon the PhD students’ home countries to provide stipends to support them for their time in Sweden, but the level of financing is often below expectations – and below the compensation offered to the foreign researchers’ Swedish counterparts.
“I don’t think people realize until they get to Sweden how limited their purchasing power really is,” said Abrahamsson.
Statistics from the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskolverket – HSV) show that the number of foreign doctoral candidates in Sweden has more than doubled in the last ten years.
However, foreign researchers are still four times more likely than their Swedish counterparts to be living on a stipend, suggesting a double standard for the use of stipends to support researchers in Sweden.
“There is a clear tendency at institutes of higher education to reduce the use of stipends to finance studies in research programmes. At the same time, there are a number of stipends directed toward foreign applicants, which seems to suggest a trend in the opposite direction,” the higher education agency said in a report published in June 2009.
“Stipends contribute to an increase in the number of foreign doctoral candidates, but at the same time create different patterns for supporting oneself among foreign and Swedish doctoral candidates.”
While Abrahamsson is fully supportive of attempts by Sweden to increase international academic exchanges, he is concerned that the unfavourable working conditions offered to foreign researchers may have negative consequences over the long term.
“I’m worried this practice may damage Sweden’s reputation as a destination for researchers,” he said.
The teachers union wants the government to address the issue by changing rules governing Swedish universities, which would ensure that foreign researchers are guaranteed the same working conditions as their Swedish counterparts.
Ultimately, the group hopes that full time employment becomes the norm for all PhD candidates at Swedish universities, regardless of nationality.
Speaking with SVT, higher education minister Tobias Krantz admitted he was bothered by the disparities facing many of Sweden’s foreign PhD candidates, but deflected criticism by instead laying blame with the universities themselves and the countries which put up funding for the stipends.
“Universities must take responsibility,” he told SVT.
He also added that the government is sceptical of changing the rules governing stipends as it would likely result in talented researchers choosing to pursue their studies in other countries.
But Abrahamsson disagreed with the minister’s claims, explaining that the government should instead view the stipends offered by foreign education authorities as partial financing of full time employment.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” he said.
“It’s not that there is a shortage of funding; it’s more a question of priorities.”
Abrahamsson admitted that PhD students in the Nordic countries have it better than those in many other countries, as the region is one of few that treats budding researchers as full time employees.
However, in order to compete for research talent against countries like the United States and Britain, argues Abrahamsson, Sweden really has no choice.
“If we want to continue to attract high quality researchers, we’re going to have to offer them better conditions than they may get in other countries,” he said, emphasizing his group's desire that all doctoral candidates in Sweden be treated equally.
“Sometimes a small country has to provide a little something extra.”