‘Pay visa fees or lose staff’, union warns universities

UK universities should bear the long-term immigration costs of overseas academic staff, according to the nation's higher education union.

UK universities should bear the long-term immigration costs of overseas academic staff, according to the nation's higher education union.
The University and College Union (UCU) says the escalating cost of visas and other immigrant charges is creating a "hostile environment" that is discouraging qualified professionals from applying to work at UK universities.According to a report in the Financial Times, non-EU employees comprise 13 per cent of academic staff at UK universities. Each has to have a Tier 2 visa to work, with fees – which apply both to an employee and each dependant – running at £610 per person for a three-year visa, rising to £1,220 for five years.Additionally, there is the annual mandatory immigration health surcharge of £400 per person. "This means visas can cost as much as £12,880 for a family of four over five years, according to the Royal Society, Britain’s independent scientific academy," reported the FT."It argues Britain needs to reassess its visa offer to remain competitive in research. The cost of applying for indefinite leave to remain, for those who have been in Britain for the requisite amount of time, costs £2,389 per person – more than 10 times what the application costs the Home Office to process."

A loss of EU talent?

However, many universities fear that a commitment to cover fees would become unmanageable after Brexit, when EU27 citizens will also be required to pay visa and associated charges.Over the summer, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged a post-Brexit immigration system that would make it easier for scientists and researchers to come to the UK - a move welcomed by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society."But," he added, "the fact remains, half of international academic talent in UK universities comes from the European Union and the EU is our single largest research collaborator. Alongside immigration reform, therefore, maintaining close working ties with researchers in Europe and access to EU research funding, are essential."

Increasing sponsorship costs

Research by EY for the Russell Group of leading UK universities found that half of its 24 members covered visa application fees, while 10 per cent paid the health surcharge. The study found that the cost of covering visas came to an average of £172,000 per university in 2017-18 and totalled £4.1 million across the group.Extending current fee levels to EU27 nationals after Brexit would increase sponsorship costs by 36 per cent. “We would like to see immigration fees for skilled workers lowered in line with other research-intensive nations,” Ben Moore, policy analyst for the Russell Group, told the FT.
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Pavel Iosad, a Russian-born linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh, who now has UK nationality, has launched a campaign, International And Broke, to highlight the problems facing overseas academic staff. “There’s an assumption that big universities, (such as) Oxford and Cambridge, will pay for visas, but the reality is many of them do not,” he says.Universities UK, the sector’s representative body, said fee payments were a matter for individual institutions. “International staff are vital in supporting both high-quality teaching and innovative research at our universities," says a spokesman."As the UK prepares to leave the EU, it is more important than ever that the UK has a fair and transparent immigration system in order to attract international talent at different stages of their careers – from support staff and technicians to Nobel Prize winners.”

Read more news and views from David Sapsted

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