Fears persist over impact of immigration rules on academia

Members of the government have said there is no plan to restrict researchers’ family members from coming to Sweden and that immigration for highly qualified people will be “protected”, but academics are still worried about what they perceive as an increase in hostility towards immigrants that will make the country less welcoming to academics and researchers.

In an article published in Expressen on 20 March, Minister for Migration Maria Malmer Stenergard (Moderate Party) and Minister for Education Mats Persson (Liberal Party) said that while the Tidö agreement, which binds the current government made up of parties from the right-wing bloc (Sweden Democrats, Moderate Party, Christian Democrats and Liberals), makes provision for a “general review” of the conditions for family immigration with the aim of tightening up the regulations in general, immigration for highly qualified people is to be protected.

The ministers were responding to an earlier commentary by the Association of University Teachers and Researchers’ Sanna Wolk and the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations’ (SACO) Göran Arrius published on 13 March in which the two said Sweden was no longer an attractive country for foreign PhD students and researchers.

Signals of hostility

Wolk and Arrius argued that the government’s plans to ‘improve’ the rules for foreign researchers’ residence permits in terms of the Tidö agreement “signalled that Sweden wants the highly qualified researcher but not the researcher’s family”.

Stenergard and Persson, however, argue that the government is “very keen to get more international talent to apply to Sweden” and that “migration legislation that allows highly qualified immigrants to bring their families is a prerequisite for standing up in international competition”.

They said, “[t]he change in the law that was carried out in 2021 meant that those who want to live in Sweden permanently as a general rule also need to be able to show a livelihood, which we think is reasonable. The slightly lower number of internationally recruited researchers for 2021 is most likely not due to a six-month-old law change, but to the corona[virus] pandemic.”

The ministers said the Swedish Migration Agency has been tasked with “promoting highly qualified labour immigration, short processing times, improving accessibility and service and making it easier for visa-exempt persons to present their original passports when applying for a temporary residence and work permit”.

They denied that the government is “ashamed” of the migration policy – a comment reportedly made by Persson in an interview in February – which will “bring order to migration and make it easier” for highly qualified immigrants.

“We can calm down SACO and SULF. The government is not ashamed of the migration policy that will bring order to migration and make it easier for highly qualified immigrants. On the contrary, we are proud to implement it,” the ministers wrote.

In an interview published in the Swedish Research Council newsletter Curie, Persson, who had then been Education Minister for four months, reportedly told interviewer Charlie Olofsson he was “ashamed” of the changes to the migration law in 2021 which have led to lengthy delays in the issuing of permanent residence permits and more stringent self-support requirements for applicants, as reported by University World News.

Characterising the regulations for international researchers “as a great mistake”, he said: “I am ashamed. We are throwing the smartest people out of our country.

“In the governmental platform between the government and the Swedish Democrats there is an opportunity to change these regulations and introduce specific arrangements for residence permits for researchers, post-doc candidates and doctorate students and to make it easier for them to get a residence permit,” he said.

Perrson said Sweden was one of the few countries in the world that makes no distinction in the regulations for a residence permit between people seeking asylum or those members of a highly qualified workforce.

“We cannot have it like this. We need a strict immigration policy in general taking into regard the integration problems we are having, but we also need flexible rules for highly qualified experts, and not least researchers,” Person said.

He said he would work towards a change in the migration regulations for researchers as soon as possible, but gave no timeframe. “It will take some time, but we are keeping up a high tempo on this issue. If I could have decided, we would have changed it tomorrow. But we must follow the rule of law,” he said.

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