Like many of my colleagues, I am still reeling from the European Union referendum result, unsure of what it might mean for my university, my students and my own security. Details aside, we can all agree that one effect of the UK’s decision to leave the EU will be more barriers for people who wish to work in its higher education system. As an overseas academic myself, I have a sense of what that might mean.
In the years running up to the referendum, the government push to crack down on net migration saw immigration fees for people hired from non-EU countries rise dramatically, from £270 in 2010 to £1,151 per person in 2016 (assuming a General Tier 2 work visa for more than three years, applied for from outside the UK). Not only this but, from April 2015, immigrants from outside the European Economic Area have also had to pay, at the time of application, a health surcharge for the entire length of their visa, amounting to about £200 a year for adults and £150 for children.
This means that if I accepted my job today, it would cost us 54 per cent more than what we paid only two years ago, when the fees were already so high that we could not afford more than three-year visas for my partner and two children (longer-term visas are more expensive).
When I mention these costs to my colleagues, most react with startled dismay, mollifying some of my embarrassment for having stumbled so naively into this situation. It is much less comforting, however, when I get the same reaction from my line manager and university administration. When I approached Oxford Brookes’ HR department last October to tell them that my wife and I were expecting another child and to ask about their provision for supporting the costs of immigration, no one seemed to know what I was talking about. Surely, I said, the university must have some sort of provision, given the impact of these outrageous costs on its employees?
But several dead-end enquiries later, my fears were confirmed: the university does not reimburse any immigration fees beyond providing the standard relocation allowance that a UK national would get for moving across town. As for visa renewals, you are completely on your own. More emails and meetings followed. Eventually, I was given the phone number of a lawyer specialising in immigration, who helped us to calculate that, with further expected rises, the cost of visas, health surcharge and settlement for our family of five would amount to more than £15,000 over the next three years.
With no support from my employer, this would mean either incurring crippling debt from personal loans or moving elsewhere and leaving a job that I had hoped to invest in for the rest of my career. So much for the security of permanent employment. The dark cloud of British sovereignty had suddenly, unsettlingly, appeared on the horizon of my sunny dreams of global academic citizenship. No doubt thousands of UK-based academics from across the EEA are now experiencing the same feeling.
Oxford Brookes is far from alone in having no policy of supporting the payment of visa fees and related costs. And there are other institutions that cover costs only partially, excluding things such as extensions, visas for dependants, health surcharges and settlement of dependants (which, this year, has seen another 25 per cent fee rise). Many of these are institutions whose heads were among the more than 100 university leaders who signed an open letter arguing that remaining in the EU was essential for maintaining the UK’s position as a global leader in science.
Universities that want to engage in globally leading research and to train the next generation of scientists to continue it will need policies that attract rather than repel the world’s best minds. Employment minister Priti Patel has argued that Brexit would help “highly skilled” people from outside the EU to take “highly valued” jobs in the UK. And yet the details of who will pay for these immigrants were strangely absent from her narrative. While I like to think of myself as one of those “highly skilled” individuals, rising fees and lack of employer support send people like me a very different message, and one that bears a striking resemblance to the anti-immigration sentiment openly celebrated by many Brexit supporters.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that failure to help academic staff bear the huge expense of immigration fees amounts to unfair discrimination, with all the attendant frustration and stigma this term carries in other contexts. Although qualified in every other sense, I don’t have the cash to work in the UK.
If universities want to distinguish their message from that of the Brexiteers, and to embrace an intellectual atmosphere based on inclusion and tolerance, then it is high time for some reflection on how to adjust to the harsh current realities of existing immigration policy.
Jason Danely is senior lecturer in anthropology at Oxford Brookes University.