‘Ageing Sweden needs foreign students to stay’

When foreign students in Sweden finish their studies, they face a race against the clock - ten days - to find work and get employment visas. Almost four in five want to stay and work but just 17 percent succeed, reports AFP.

'Ageing Sweden needs foreign students to stay'
Students in northern Sweden. File photo: TT

During Chinese engineering student Zhao Shuqi's years at Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), she has experienced an abrupt change in policy that has introduced fees for students from nations outside the EU. Zhao began her studies at KTH before fees were introduced in 2011, but since then she has paid a total of 290,000 kronor ($44,000), with the help of her parents and part-time jobs.

That's about ten years of income for the average urban resident in China, and what's more, once she has got her diploma, she is likely to be asked to leave the country, unless she does something about it.

"I must find a job before I graduate, or else I cannot stay," she said.

Since introducing fees Swedish universities have struggled to attract foreign students, and critics now warn its visa system pushes highly qualified graduates out of the country. Until 2011, Sweden was one of the few countries in the world to offer free university places to all foreign students, attracting nearly 8,000 in the final year of the scheme. But when fees were introduced for non-EU nationals enrolments dropped by 80 percent to 1,600 with the greatest fall-off among African and Asian students.

Sweden still offers stipends for particularly qualified post-graduate students from non-EU countries. But not enough to fill the empty seats left in lecture halls, like at KTH, which is one of Scandinavia's most prestigious centres of higher learning and receives 5,000 applications per year for foreign bursaries but can only offer 60 funded places.

KTH's president, Peter Gudmundson, said that foreign graduates have contributed to Sweden's industrial development and are seen as ambassadors for the country.

"It's quite common that they take jobs in Swedish companies outside Sweden," he told AFP.

But taking up jobs in Sweden is somewhat harder, unless students are recruited before graduation. In a recent op-ed article in the daily Dagens Nyheter, KTH president Gudmundson argued for a review of the fees decision and better visa arrangements.

His counterpart at Gothenburg University, Pam Fredman, co-authored the article and said that Sweden makes it too hard for students who have lived in the country for several years to get visas, and that Sweden needs better links between education and industry.

Carl Bennet, the head of a large investment fund, is one of several business leaders who has spoken out about the problem.

"We must create a basis for them to stay and work in Sweden," he said.

When foreign students finish their studies they face a race against the clock to find work and get employment visas before their student visas expire — just 10 days after graduation. Despite 76 percent of students saying they want to stay in the country and work after graduation, a mere 17 percent succeed, according to a report from Boston Consulting Group.

Apart from the cost of funding foreign students' studies, the decision to impose fees was necessary, said Tobias Krantz, the minister for higher education at the time and now head of education at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise. The reason: large numbers of non-paying students distorted the education market.

"Swedish higher education must compete in the global market," he said, adding that overseas students should look to Sweden because they want to benefit from "a high level of education, not because the university entrance is free of charge".

Krantz believes Sweden can become a top destination for foreign students once again "if Swedish universities take on that challenge and they are given the right incentives to do so". With an ageing population and growing skills shortages, particularly in healthcare and IT, the government will come under increasing pressure from industry to tackle the graduate visa issue, however.

"In the future Sweden needs more, especially high-skilled, people to come to work here in order to preserve and maintain Swedish welfare," said Krantz. 

Ariane Picard/AFP/at

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‘Give foreign PhDs a clear path to residency in Sweden’

Sweden needs to change rules that strip foreign doctoral candidates of the same rights as other tax-paying migrant workers seeking permanent residency in Sweden, argue a group of doctoral candidates from the Royal Institute for Technology (KTH).

'Give foreign PhDs a clear path to residency in Sweden'

Foreign doctoral candidates in Sweden can often find themselves in difficult predicaments. Whether it’s navigating through the seemingly endless ‘personnummer’ applications required for the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket); or, year in, year out, having to apply to the Swedish Migration Board (Migrationsverket) for visa extensions almost immediately after receiving a valid visa.

We have our fair share of headaches – and that’s before we even have to deal with our supervisors.

And we put up with all of this because Sweden is really a great country.

We can get an excellent education in one of the world’s leading countries in terms of innovative higher degree research; the average Swede’s lifestyle is what every human on the planet aspires for; and it’s a beautiful place to live (not to mention the fabulous weather, especially compared with Australia).

Sadly though, despite all our work, and all the money invested into our research and candidatures, as the law currently stands, not a single day’s work towards our doctoral theses will count towards eligibility for permanent residency in Sweden.

Providing doctoral candidates with the right to permanent residency, after the completion of their degree, not only provides an additional incentive for international candidates to do research in Sweden, but initiates numerous benefits for the country as a whole.

Instead of funding doctoral candidates who end up moving elsewhere to use their skills, Sweden can take advantage of its investment by providing us with the ability to apply for permanent residency upon the completion of our studies.

Making it easier for us to gain residency is a simple way for Sweden to capitalize on the potential benefits of embracing this highly-skilled sector of the workforce.

We also have strong global networks and specific cultural expertise from our home nations.

Easing the requirements for residency will help Sweden benefit from freshly minted PhDs not only by increasing the chances they have to apply their skills in the country, but also through those candidates who choose to move back and forth, which will strengthen Sweden's global academic and business ties to their home countries.

To not provide this right only seems to further damage Sweden’s reputation as an internationally-supportive place of higher degree studies.

Fortunately, there is hope that Sweden may soon correct what we see as a major shortcoming in the country's treatment of foreign researchers who come here to receive their PhDs.

Later this month, the Riksdag will a motion stemming from a March 2011 report from Sweden’s Committee for Circular Migration and Development which proposes introducing a new form of residence permit specifically for doctoral candidates coming from countries outside of the EU/EEA.

A normal working migrant pays taxes and has the right to permanent residency after four years. As international doctoral candidates, we also pay taxes, but do not receive this same right, despite our training.

The committee’s proposal includes plans to fundamentally change this situation by equipping international doctoral candidates with the same rights as ordinary migrant workers.

Unfortunately though, there is little indication today as to whether the Swedish government will put forward their own proposal on this matter and pass the responding laws that are required for change.

But what we do know is that on May 30th, a committee at the Riksdag will debate a motion put forward by Karin Granbom Ellison of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) aiming to make it easier for PhD students to gain permanent residency in Sweden.

It is our intention to provide the Riksdag with a petition outlining the overwhelming support for this change.

As international doctoral candidates, we are not only asking for the right to further contribute to Swedish society, but we want Sweden to "use" us so that we can pay back our debts to the nation and further strengthen this country’s reputation as a world-leading place of research and business.

It is our sincere hope that with enough support through this petition, the government will be provided with the mandate to implement the required changes and put forward their own proposal before the upcoming debate.

Jake Whitehead (Australia), Shiva Habibi (Iran), and Masoud Fadaei (Iran) are international doctoral candidates at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm