No need to tie student visas to dropout rate, say Swedish rectors

Government and institutions are aligned when it comes to recruiting genuine students, despite alleged visa abuse becoming a right-wing hobby horse

December 27, 2022
Source: Alamy

Sweden’s immigration agency has suggested slashing red tape for universities with lower dropout rates after a report found that a third of Pakistani students took up work after the minimum amount of study.

The finding was presented at a press conference by migration minister Maria Malmer Stenergard and, in what was described as a first by local media, Henrik Vinge, deputy leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, which is the second largest party in parliament but excluded from the centre-right coalition government.

The Swedish Migration Agency found that a third of all Pakistani master’s students dropped out and took up full-time work as soon as they hit the 30-credit or one-semester threshold to be eligible for a work permit under Swedish law.

To help combat this “misuse” of student residence permits, the agency suggested that universities be offered “simplified procedures” and “significantly reduced administration”, such as fast-tracking or 24-month permits, if they have lower dropout rates.

That idea has been dismissed by sector leaders, who said such carrots are redundant. “We want to deal with this anyway, so there are no incentives needed,” Erik Renström, rector of Lund University, told Times Higher Education.

“The Swedish universities really perform well when it comes to finding international talent, so I see no need for such an instrument to make an A- and B-league among universities,” said Ole Petter Ottersen, president of the Karolinska Institute, referring to the idea of two-speed immigration channels.

The electoral success of the Sweden Democrats in September raised fears that a nation famed for its welcome of refugees would put up barriers to entry, after a previous tightening of immigration rules for non-European Union citizens has already hurt international attractiveness.

“It’s a serious issue. It is really hurting the profile of Sweden in the international landscape of research,” said Professor Ottersen, referring to recent changes. He has written about Karolinska staff having to “undertake a trip halfway around the world with a newborn child” to get a residence permit or the migration agency forbidding students from studying abroad as part of a double degree.

In October, the government introduced the requirement that passports be presented in person at a Swedish embassy or consulate before granting residence permits. “Even in the US, for a person to travel from California to Washington DC to get an OK from the Swedish embassy there, it’s not an easy thing to do,” said Professor Ottersen, adding that a potential Karolinska staffer had taken up an offer at a US university instead because of the rules. “There are countries from which we recruit talents that haven’t got a Swedish embassy,” he added.

Despite the Sweden Democrats’ electoral success – over 20 per cent of the national vote – they are yet to have a visible impact on immigration policy, a central plank of their campaign. The parties of government, including education minister Mats Persson, have promised no further bars on academic immigration, recognising its role in Sweden’s research ambitions.

“He [the minister] reiterated that even though there are immigration policies at the more general level that turn Sweden into a more restrictive country for immigration, he was very, very clear that the government would see to it that we would still have possibilities for recruiting talents to Sweden,” said Professor Ottersen. “We are totally dependent on mobility.”

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