An Alien career path
When I was a kid my mother always told me that it was important that I got a good education. My mother’s motivations for this were many, however one reason was to ensure that it would give me the stability that only job security offers. However, when it comes to the question of job security, by pursuing a PhD I have taken it too far.
With the new Aliens Act the consequences of lack of job security has become very visible, on doctoral students and other early career researchers from outside of EU/EEA. In order to obtain a permanent residency one now has to have had a temporary one for four years and a work contract for the next 18 months from the day the migration agency starts processing your application. If you are unfamiliar with the topic, I recommend you read our previous blogpost.
Last week we sent a letter to a number of Swedish politicians together with SACO, SULF, SULF-DCA, TCO, and ST. In the letter we encourage the government to introduce an exception in the new Aliens Act for doctoral students and other researchers, no matter how they are financed.
Both the minister of justice Morgan Johansson and the minister of higher education Matilda Enkrans have commented on the situation. However both seem to think that the universities themselves can solve the problem, simply by providing longer contracts. And while I think that doctoral students and other early career researchers should have secure employment conditions – the sentiment shows that there is a conceptual misunderstanding about where the problem lies.
The precariousness of the academic career
Doctoral education is a four year education, and while it can be prolonged due to several reasons such as departemental duties, parental leave, sick leave, etc. for most doctoral students it accumulates to less than five and a half years. So when a doctoral student has been enrolled for four years and can apply for permanent residency, they will have less than 18 months left. Longer contracts for doctoral students will not fix this – only an exception in the law will.
After doctoral education, an academic career in Sweden continues for up to 7 years in other temporary research positions. Many of these positions are financed by external grants – such as funding from Vetenskapsrådet, the Wallenberg foundation, European funding schemes, or industry.
This intrinsically ensures that it is not the universities alone that decide the length of contracts for temporary research positions. The assumption that the length of the contract is alone set by the universities forget to take into account how research and research education is funded today. In very crude terms, the funding of research and research education is either direct or external funding. Direct funding is the funding the universities receive from the government whereas the external funding is the one that comes from private and public funding agencies and industry. Yes, one can argue that the university controls their direct funding to some degree but this is certainly not the case when it comes to external funding. Here it is the funding agency or the industrial partner that sets the size and the length of the funding, and this again has direct influence on the length of contracts that the universities can offer.
It is a political choice that a larger and larger part of the funding of research and research education is external funding. This has consequences, and one of these consequences is that it is no longer the universities alone that control the terms of employment of researchers. We in SFS have long argued that this is problematic for both the quality of higher education and research and that we would welcome a change of this reality. However, keeping focus on the new Aliens Act, it cannot be stressed enough that universities cannot alone solve the problem that the Act gives rise to when it comes to doctoral students and other early career research being eligible for permanent residency – an exception in the Aliens Act is needed and we encourage the government to introduce one fast.
The value of a doctoral education (for Sweden)
Any education is valuable for the individual, which is why my mother insisted that I get one, but an education is also valuable for society. When it comes to doctoral education, it is also not a cheap education, the costs includes salaries, overhead costs and other costs associated with the employment such as insurance, but also additional costs towards necessary equipment such as experimental setups. So let us ensure that it is worth the money for the universities, for industry and for the Swedish society.
Doctoral education is not just an education of an individual, but also an intrinsic part of the higher education sector. Doctoral students carry out a significant part of the teaching and research done at Swedish universities, and we shape the future of the sector.
But it is not just within academia that doctoral education is valuable. Those who leave for industry and the public sector upon graduation take their training and knowledge with them to their future job. Doctoral students and other early career researchers often work on cutting edge technologies which results in new solutions that can be used in industry and can lead to a growth in the Swedish economy. The examples on this are many, for instance, many doctoral graduates from STEM fields turn to work in highly skilled jobs in the tech industry or use their knowledge to start their own entrepreneurships or business – all things that Sweden prides itself on wanting to attract.
Should I come, should I stay or should I go elsewhere?
Academia is a strange place, and academics are sometimes perceived as living in an ivory tower. Don’t get me wrong, we have many privileges as academics, but the employment conditions of early career researchers are certainly not one of them.
The question about permanent residency versus a temporary one of course also has a human dimension. A temporary residency keeps you in a waiting position, it is stressful, and it halts the integration process for you and your family. This is of course the same whether you are working within academia or outside of it, but there’s also a matter of equality, since for virtually any other job in Sweden if you have been employed for 4 years you are almost guaranteed to have permanent employment, and that is not the case for doctoral employment. Among current doctoral students, many made the decision to pursue their studies under very different circumstances and have turned down other opportunities, based on the previous Aliens Act.
So the question that remains is what does Sweden as a country want its reputation to be when it comes to these talented individuals to commit to. Do we, as a country, want to be able to attract them in the first place, do we really want them to stay here upon graduation and contribute to society as stated in the latest research bill, or do we want them to take their knowledge, their skills and their talent elsewhere?
Let’s solve the problem!
For doctoral students and other researchers that are from outside the EU/EEA, the new Aliens Act means that pursuing an academic career becomes almost synonymous with giving up on permanent residency.
SFS and SFS-DK would like to see Swedish universities competing on the international educational arena. Let us ensure that we can attract the best candidates – whether they are Swedish, European or from outside EU/EEA. Do so by doing the right thing and ensuring that doctoral students and other early career researchers do not have an extra obstacle they have to overcome for obtaining permanent residency. It will make Sweden more competitive when it comes to attracting the best candidates for academic positions and remain an attractive research nation.