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.
Current system flaws
For education 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.
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.
End of EU free movement
The end of EU free movement from 31st December 2020 and the imminent introduction of a new UK immigration system and the government’s hardline approach to immigration are fuelling concerns that the sector will struggle to maintain staffing and talent levels, not least since fewer people will see the UK as an attractive or viable destination to work.
HE is a sector where international talent plays a perhaps even more significant role.
Academic staff come from all over the world. In terms of competition, HEIs operate very much in the global marketplace – job adverts go out all over the world.
Take the University of Sheffield: 21% of its workforce come from overseas, made up of 9% from EU countries and 12% from other overseas nations in 2017/18. These figures have remained steadfast since the Brexit vote but much of the sector’s concern is what will happen after Brexit happens.
In the practical corner stands the possibility of new visa regimes and complex immigration processes, acting as a barrier to retaining existing and recruiting future employees. Additionally, some major research projects at UK universities are currently funded by EU grants or conducted through collaboration with EU universities – both of which may cease depending on the outcome of negotiations.
While the detail of the future immigration system eludes, educators should be gearing for 2021 and the end of EU free movement when all migrants, regardless of nationality, must qualify for permission in some way under a skills-based regime to work in the UK. This will necessarily incur Home Office and professional fees to apply and secure the relevant visa. The impact on UK personnel planning – both academic and administrative – cannot be underestimated.
While the EU settlement scheme offers those EU citizens currently in the UK protection over their immigration rights, EU employee attrition in the UK has increased since the referendum result as EU citizens opt to leave the UK, its uncertain future and hostile environment. UK employers are being urged to encourage their EU workers to register for the EU settlement scheme in advance of the deadline to safeguard their status post-Brexit. Settled status registration numbers however remain far short of 100%, creating further uncertainty for UK employers over their ability to retain EU workers.
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.
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.
Any new immigration system needs to offer 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.
Global talent visa
The UK government has announced a new, fast-track visa scheme to attract the world’s top scientists, researchers and mathematicians into the country. The Global Talent route has no cap on the number of applications and will open as of February 20 – mere weeks after the UK leaves the EU.
The route replaces the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) route and, for the first time, UK Research and Innovation will endorse applicants from the scientific and research community.
It will provide for a new fast-track scheme which will enable UK-based research projects that have received awards, including from the European Space Agency and the Japan Science and Technology Agency, to recruit global talent.
Ministers explained that it would also double the number of eligible fellowships which enable applicants to be fast-tracked, and provide an “accelerated path” to settled status for researchers who are endorsed on the route.
Appealing to international students
The number of UK Tier 4 sponsored study visas granted increased by 16% in 2019, and with a stronger post-study work offer, more growth is expected.
The continued increase in the number of international students choosing to study in the UK is evidence of the quality of the education sector and the experience it offers to those coming from overseas.
Critical to the success of the international education strategy is ensuring students from all countries and regions are attracted, as well as maintaining the numbers of students from China and India. While America has traditionally been the most popular international location for Chinese students, the ongoing US-China trade war and controversies on US campuses have driven many Chinese students to UK universities instead. Similarly, in Australia, increasing hostility towards Chinese students is encouraging many to look to the UK.
The government is reversing policies which previously positioned the UK as unwelcoming, allowing UK universities to alleviate financial pressures and provide cultural and diversity benefits on campus by opening their doors to a wider range of international students.
DavidsonMorris are established advisers to the education sector. As employer solutions lawyers, we work with education providers and institutions to support with their full people requirements including immigration & employment legal advice and global mobility & human resource consultancy.
We understand the commercial and legal challenges facing employers in the sector, and work to support our clients in meeting their people management and planning needs while reducing legal risk exposure. Contact our education sector specialists today.
Last updated: 2nd January 2020