Paul Hamilton case: UK must not drive away overseas PhD students

Immigration policy puts at risk 'valuable resources', argues Fiona Whelan

January 27, 2016
Airport departures

This post is prompted by the story of US citizen Paul Hamilton, recent PhD graduate of the University of Birmingham, who was detained by the UK Home Office for 10 days after his leave to remain application was refused.

Having worked in higher education for only a few months now, I can say without hesitation that one of the foremost concerns facing universities in the UK is financing. This may sound ludicrous given the recent rise in tuition fees to £9,000 for undergraduates, but the increased revenue from student fees is countered by more and more government cuts.

Recruiting more overseas students allows universities to boost their finances through increased tuition fees. Yet, while universities are looking to expand their population of international students, the government is making it more and more difficult to tempt those students to come to the UK to study.

Let's look at the fee schedule for University College London in a number of disciplines for full-time PhD students 2016-17 (and I've picked UCL for no other reasons than it was the first university to pop into my head). You can find the full list here:

PhD History: £4,770 per annum home and EU/£17,190 per annum overseas 

PhD Geography: £4,770 per annum home and EU/£17,190 per annum overseas 

PhD Chemistry: £4,770 per annum home and EU /£22,180 per annum overseas

The point is not about how much UCL or other institutions charge overseas students, but about the difference between what home/EU and overseas students pay, usually triple or quadruple.

In the humanities, in particular, there are many international students who fully fund or partially fund their own PhDs in the UK.

These international students have contributed money to their institution. In return they have been provided with resources and expertise to assist them in their academic pursuits. The UK and its educational institutions are investing in the academic development of future researchers through the provision of funding grants, libraries, laboratories, supervisors, etc.  

But this is not a one-way street. Like many their home/EU counterparts, many international PhD students will teach undergraduates and many will work part-time, thus contributing to the economy through taxes.

Students contribute far more than just financial resources. As educators they will help to shape the academic development of undergraduate students. But let’s not forget the main thing: intellect and scholarship. PhD students will contribute to original scholarship, undertake innovative research, deliver results, publish, take part in conferences, and much more.

And how does the UK government say thank you for such contributions? They want to restrict the right to stay and work in this country to the very people they have poured resources into. They want to impose a minimum starting salary in the range of £30,000, which anyone in the humanities knows is hardly likely when first starting out post-PhD.

They want overseas students to return home to apply for a visa from there, with the additional financial expenses incurred and the emotional implications. Remember, PhDs can take three to four years in the UK, and sometimes longer, by which time people have found partners, found a community and put down roots. In some cases, such as that of Dr Hamilton, the government will even arrest and detain you.  

How will we continue to encourage overseas students to study and research in UK institutions and to enrich the UK academic arena if this is the treatment they can expect at the end? If the UK wants to thrive and succeed in the future, it must use the expertise and skills of PhD students, whether home/EU or overseas. It seems so wasteful to lose such valuable resources through a bureaucratic, blanket approach to immigration policies.

Fiona Whelan recently completed a doctorate in medieval history at the University of Oxford. This post originally appeared on her blog, Beyond the Doctorate.

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