Future of UK academia hangs on UK immigration policy
“For academic visitors, applying for a UK visitor visa is now akin to rolling a dice”
Immigration reform is critical if the UK is to retain standards and reputation for academic excellence, explains immigration lawyer Anne Morris.
The UK immigration system is failing UK academia. Visa processing is protracted, expensive and unpredictable, undermining the efforts of educational institutions to attract and retain global academic talent.
The challenges are affecting both short-term academic visitors and longer-term recruitment programmes. The sector is missing out on staff and speakers and is in danger of losing its standing as a leading global hub of academic excellence.
For management and administrators, immigration has become a daily drain in an effort to stay on top of changes in the rules, understand the shifting minutiae of eligibility and manage application processing.
For academic visitors, applying for a UK visitor visa is now akin to rolling a dice. Home Office decision-making and visitor visa policies are resulting in high profile visa refusals of leading scholars, raising concerns about discrimination and the credibility of Home Office caseworkers who may not be best placed or best informed to determine an applicant’s case.
Visiting scholars are now being deterred from applying and universities are being forced to consider alternatives to UK-based events given the uncertainty of securing entry for keynote speakers.
Academic recruitment is also being hit. Inflexible rules and the general challenges with Home Office processing mean UK universities, competing in the global talent market, are struggling to bring in international talent.
“Visiting scholars are now being deterred from applying and universities are being forced to consider alternatives to UK-based events”
While a number of immigration routes are potentially open to international academics – such the Tier 2 General visa, the Tier 5 youth mobility scheme and the Tier 1 ‘Exceptional Talent’ programme – each route has its own strict eligibility and application criteria.
Restrictions apply regarding permissible activities and remuneration, and application costs for individual applicants and their sponsors are surging, with no guarantees of securing the visa.
Recent changes to the immigration rules have acknowledged weaknesses in the system. The recent removal of PhD roles from the Tier 2 quota, the exemption of overseas research related excessive absences for settlement applications and a review of the Tier 2 minimum salary requirement all signal change in the right direction. But the fundamental issues remain across the recruitment pipeline.
One of Boris Johnson’s first pledges as PM was to announce a fast-tracked immigration route to attract international scientists. Great in theory, but any such measure remains at the mercy of pervasive issues of cost, flawed and inconsistent Home Office decision-making and a focus on experienced individuals over supporting emerging talent and post-study work.
“Recent changes to the immigration rules have acknowledged weaknesses in the system”
A defining period
With consistent recognition from the government advisory body, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) that the current system is in many areas ineffective, the Government is moving ahead with the development of a new immigration system, scheduled to take effect by January 2021. The latest move has seen Priti Patel commission the MAC to evaluate the merits of an Australian-style points-based system.
In any event, employers should prepare for immigration costs and administrative burdens to soar as EU freedom of movement ends and EEA nationals become subject to the new rules.
And then there is Brexit.
Whatever the outcome or the basis on which the UK leaves the EU, the damage has been in the uncertainty – diminishing the appeal of the UK as an open and welcoming centre for global academic excellence.
We can only hope that through the MAC review and stakeholder consultations, any new immigration system offers UK academia more in the way of flexibility and support in meeting the sector’s talent demands, improving the fluidity of people and knowledge into the UK. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make UK immigration fit for purpose and safeguard the future global status and appeal of UK academia.
About the author: Anne Morris is the founder and managing director at DavidsonMorris. She is an immigration lawyer with more than 25 years’ experience advising employers in the UK education sector on all aspects of immigration compliance and talent mobility.