Academics’ families are suffering from high UK visa costs

UK universities must cover soaring staff visa costs to mitigate the effects of the Home Office’s harmful policies, says Tristan Sturm

December 19, 2018
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The Home Office is making it very hard for me to lecture in the UK.

In recent years, it has substantially increased visa and permanent residency costs to help subsidise border security and dissuade migrants, academics from outside the European Union included.

In the case of permanent residency, or what the Home Office awkwardly phrases “Indefinite Leave to Remain” (ILR), the cost has increased 59 per cent, from £1,500 to £2,400 since 2015, the year I moved from Canada to Northern Ireland.

Moreover, to apply, the applicant must surrender their passport for up to six months unless they want to pay £3,000 for same-day service, which is likely to be a necessity for the travel required as an academic.

This is a hefty bill for an early career researcher and costs even more if the researcher has dependants. Visa costs for a child born in the UK to a non-EU worker requires a visa, which, depending when you had that child, will cost at least £1,200 for a three-year visa.

Then there is the £600 health surcharge, a 2015 policy that serves to allay rightward concerns that migrants are abusing the NHS.

The total cost for a three-member family, from child visa to permanent residency, is about £9,000.

Such debt disproportionately affects early career researchers whose pay is low relative to other faculty. This is especially true for the growing numbers of faculty from working-class backgrounds.

Compared with my UK colleagues, these costs force my family to consider if we can afford to have more children. In some cases, these costs have aggravated the break-up of families.

Until the Home Office resolves this inequitable policy, UK universities must make significant provision to attract diverse and world-class staff.

However, most UK higher education institutions do not have an official policy to pay for visas or ILR.

If universities do pay, it’s often only on a retention or goodwill basis by heads of school.

Such arrangements leave a significant financial issue at the discretion of an individual, with often stressful consequences for staff and inconsistent outcomes across schools and faculties.

While initial visas (five- or three-year visas plus the health surcharge) are often covered through relocation cost allocation, a staff member can be left to their own resources to pay for visa renewals or ILR.

Brexit has complicated the matter. Potentially, new staff hires from EU states post-Brexit will also require visas. The widening out of these exorbitant costs across the EU will discourage future EU applicants to UK universities.

This will compound the “Brexodus” effect, where a few thousand EU academics have already left and a further three-quarters of EU academics are considering leaving the UK, according to a YouGov poll, commissioned by the University and College Union, from 2016.

 If universities are to maintain their international profiles, covering the cost of visas and ILR to recruit or retain staff will be costly.

Such profiles are important for prestige. The percentage of international staff are often favourably considered in various international university rankings, including the Times Higher Education World University Rankings’ “international outlook” criterion. International faculty are also often called upon for university marketing materials, with institutions promoting their diversity as lures for international students able to pay higher fees.

International staff can only continue to enrich the lives of students, staff and community alike if they are not put at a severe financial and familial disadvantage.

UK universities that recognise and value international staff by offsetting the increasing burden of visa and ILR costs, will become more attractive, diverse and inclusive homes for the world’s best scholars.

Tristan Sturm is a lecturer of human geography at Queen’s University Belfast.

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