Immigrant songs

January 16, 2014

In relating how scholars from outside the European Union struggle with the UK’s visa regime, the feature “Life on the edge” (2 January) focuses on harsh rejections, administrative errors and shambolic procedures resulting in academics spending months in limbo and even being pushed out of the country. But even those of us who have been lucky enough to negotiate both the job market and the immigration minefield have stories to tell.

I did my PhD in a country where immigration fees are affordable, which is part of the Schengen area (so even as a non-EU citizen you do not have to apply for a visa to attend a conference in Europe – unless it is in the UK), and where I ended up securing permanent residency.

And yet the shadow of the UK Border Agency reaches even there. For my first conference in the UK, I had to present myself at the embassy for biometrics. A two-hour flight was the only option for getting there, but at least the visa was issued on the same day. Fast-forward four years for my Tier 2 application. Timescales had grown, a visitor visa was issued so late that I ended up discarding my plane tickets and doing a video interview instead of the real thing, and the embassy’s visa section had been closed altogether, outsourcing the biometrics to a contractor that charges yet more on top of the visa fees and travel costs. And a Tier 2 visa costs almost £500 per person.

Elation at having been informed of my success at an interview turned to despair just hours later when I learned that no offer would be forthcoming because the presence of a reserve candidate from the European Economic Area spelled failure to pass the resident labour market test. It was left to me to point out that an imminent rule change would allow the hiring of non-EEA citizens for PhD-level posts in this situation – at which point I was told to await further communications, putting my life on hold for several agonising weeks. Still, at the end I had a job, even if it was temporary.

Another four-figure, upfront fee later, I have a permanent post at an institution and can look forward to some stability in my immigration status, if not my financial affairs: the Home Office indicates that when the time comes to renew the family’s visas, despite having paid taxes and National Insurance contributions for almost four years, we will be subject to the NHS charge (“Healthcare charges on horizon”, News, 9 January).

So there you have it. Close shaves, ever-rising fees and increasingly hollow protestations of being open for business. Although I managed, I cannot help asking: will the value of the prize always be greater than the hurdles one must scale to get one’s hands on it?

Pavel Iosad
Lecturer in theoretical phonology
University of Edinburgh


There’s little evidence to suggest that international students are anything but occasional users of the NHS and other public services, but there is ample proof of their willingness to contribute to the UK – where allowed.

Whether it is a levy at point of entry to cover their use of the NHS or on a pay-per-use basis, this is something that could be broadly supported only if it is competitive with the charges already applied by the UK’s competitors and only if it is not positioned as a deterrent.

By the same token, it could be argued that in the interest of fairness – and the public purse – a simultaneous rise in working allowances for international students should also be considered, which would result in their contributing more to public services through taxes.

International students already contribute a vast amount to the UK, economically, culturally and academically. If handled correctly, allowing them to contribute to the NHS will reassure them that they may use the service and thus make them feel welcome. If handled poorly, we risk yet another policy PR disaster.

James Pitman
Managing director, HE – UK and Europe, Study Group

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