Non-EU scholars struggling with the UK’s visa policy

Academics describe the complex, arbitrary bureaucracy, emotional turmoil and career limbo wrought by Britain’s policies

Source: Getty

Despite having worked as a teaching fellow here and having a job offer and a British wife, the UKBA wants me out

When I came to the UK from Canada in 2009 to study for a geography PhD at the University of Leicester, I saw it as the beginning of a new life here. I had been married to a UK citizen since 2004 – my wife is currently completing her PhD at the University of Warwick – and I dreamed of a future working in British higher education, which has such a high reputation internationally.

Until recently, things had been going extremely well. As expected, my supervisors at Leicester were excellent and, after finishing my (self-funded) PhD in late 2012, I proudly took up my first full-time academic job as a teaching fellow in the same department.

In addition to lecturing and marking, I – like many young academics on temporary contracts – spent a great deal of time applying for my next job. Shortly before my contract expired in July 2013, I applied for a lectureship at the University of Brighton; after much preparation and a very intense interview process, I was offered the job. Honestly, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

I have also built a good life in a Leicester community that I care about. Every morning I walk my dog in Victoria Park; when I can, I take the train to visit relatives and friends in Watford, York or elsewhere. But all this is about to change because of the curious policies of the UK Border Agency.

In August, Brighton informed me that, in accordance with UK policy on hiring foreigners, it was obliged to readvertise my position (any hiring of a non-European Union worker requires a minimum length of time advertised and a minimum number of EU candidates interviewed). After a long, unpaid wait, I was informed in mid-September that I was still the preferred candidate. So I began working with Brighton staff to prepare for the start of the academic year while also starting on another long and expensive work visa application: my third in nine months.

The application was completed, submitted and paid for, and I arranged an appointment for the collection of my biometric data (which must be made from outside the country) to be done near my family home in Toronto. With a packed bag and plane ticket in hand, I headed to London for a family funeral the day before my flight.

That evening – three weeks after the start of term – I received an email from Brighton stating that, because of the UKBA’s rules, I would not be granted a work visa. Because I had already had a work visa in the past 12 months, I was ineligible to apply again until mid-July 2014. Or to put it a different way, I hadn’t been unemployed long enough to be employed.

When I tell people that the UKBA would not allow me to apply for a visa even though I had been offered a job, they cannot believe it. I, however, think it’s all too predictable. I have been feeling the increasing weight of the UKBA on my back since I first began hearing – almost as soon as I arrived – that international students were to be subject to additional monitoring. This, of course, has been manifested in various ways, most chillingly in the plans by the universities of Ulster and Sunderland to subject international students to biometric fingerprinting.

At the same time, post-study work visas have been abolished, and universities have been tacitly discouraged from hiring foreign academics – even those trained in the UK – through the imposition of a series of arcane challenges such as those I experienced regarding my non-EU citizenship. And when that does not work – when a “foreigner” like me manages to provide exactly what a department needs in a teacher or a lecturer – it turns out that the bureaucracy may still slam the door shut. The 12-month “cooling-off” period, as it is called, is essentially a bar to foreign early career academics like me ever establishing themselves in the UK.

The problem is exacerbated by the neo-liberal reformism that is forcing universities to behave like large corporations. Year-long positions have been replaced by nine- or 10-month contracts such as the one I was on at Leicester, and no university will hire someone months early simply to avoid the UKBA pitfalls created by a gap in employment.

So, despite all my connections to the UK, despite all the money I have put into the economy without taking a penny of public funds, I must now leave the country. My career has been set back and, drowning in debt, I will return to my parents’ home, the home I moved away from in 1999, while my wife remains here to complete her degree and her viva voce. The break-up of our family will, of course, put a great deal of financial and emotional strain on us both.

There is no appeals process against the UKBA’s decision, and Brighton has already offered the lectureship to someone else. I have no hope of regaining it. But Britons deserve to know that their universities are being undermined, their students sold short, and people’s lives disrupted by a combination of an immigration crackdown and a neoliberal management agenda that flies in the face of freedom and academic integrity.

Adam Barker was a teaching fellow at the University of Leicester.

Man at bottom of tube staircase

The UKBA bungled my application, and it cost me a job

The government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth: it claims it wants people to come to study and work here, but it makes it very difficult for them to do so

Winning a studentship in 2006 to fund my PhD at a London university felt like a dream come true.

The timing was perfect: I was teaching part-time at a Canadian university but I wanted to do something that would build my career; a personal relationship was coming to an end; and I was frustrated with the limited arts and social scene in my home city.

The studentship covered the fees and the cost of the research equipment I needed for my studies in creative technology, but I knew I’d need to find a job to cover living expenses.

I got two interviews straight away and was offered a job at a different, nearby university. The money was decent enough, albeit low in comparison with similar jobs in Canada.

So I started the exciting and slightly daunting process of uprooting and moving my whole life to the UK. After 20 years in Canada, it felt like a huge move.

My first visa took about six weeks to arrive, which meant that I had to start the job three weeks late – but this was nothing compared with the problems that were to come.

I was happy for the first few years of my PhD. However, the focus of my research changed over time, and I realised that I was teaching something I didn’t really care about any more.

I wanted to work in a department that would bring greater value to my research and where my work would be more appreciated.

Thus, it was wonderful news when, in July 2008, the university where I was studying for my PhD offered me the opportunity to develop and run a master’s programme. I made an application for a Tier 2 visa with my prospective new employer. This is when the problems really started.

The UK Border Agency bungled my application and twice returned it to me (I couldn’t afford the cost of making an appointment to see someone). It demanded money even though I had already paid. For four months, I struggled to sort out the problem. Eventually I spoke to my MP and sought legal advice.

By this time, I was getting nervous – I knew that the university offering me the job couldn’t wait for ever. Meanwhile, my current contract was coming to an end and my employer wanted to know whether I was leaving or whether I wanted my yearly contract renewed. With my immigration status in limbo, I feared that I could end up losing both jobs and being sent back to Canada unemployed. In the end, my would-be employers had to rescind their offer because they couldn’t wait any longer. The only consolation was that my current employers said they’d take care of the UKBA’s requirements if I agreed to stay.

My passport was finally returned to me in November 2008. It came with a new Tier 2 visa, but when I opened it I saw that it was for the job I’d wanted at the university where I was studying – a job that was no longer available. I was devastated. However, my employer assured me that everything would be OK, and I went back to my MP to seek her support. Nevertheless, one month later, I was told that I was working illegally and that my employer would have to terminate my contract and rehire me. The university agreed to do this, so I lived on my holiday pay while I awaited the arrival of yet another Tier 2 visa.

Christmas was now approaching, but as I was without a passport there was no prospect of returning to Canada to spend time with my family. On Christmas Eve, six months after I’d been offered the job I wanted – after three visa applications, after winning and then losing a new job, after managing to keep my old job and then having my contract terminated – I received a call from a UKBA officer. He processed my application in just two hours. By 4 January 2009, I had my old job back – the one I had wanted to leave.

But I would later discover that the one-month career break carried a further cost.

A few years after this, I was awarded my PhD. I also met my current partner, someone I consider the love of my life. I had many reasons to stay here and wanted to apply for settlement – and I should have been entitled to apply for it after five years’ working and paying taxes in this country. I discovered, however, that the break in my contract had wiped out this opportunity and that it would be another five years – the end of 2014 – before I could apply again.

Fast forward to January 2014. I have made a new life for myself in the UK and new and excellent connections, networks and friends. A lawyer has told me that I could fight for settlement status, using the evidence I collected from the 2008 visa botch – but it will take more than six months and a lot of money, up to £5,000.

I am still in the same job. I’ve had numerous interviews over the past two years, and on several occasions I’ve been told that I just missed out to another candidate.

But I’ve started to notice some changes in the job advertisements in the past few years. It now seems that many vacancies are fractional posts, for which a foreigner cannot get sponsorship. The advertisements also increasingly state that “only those who are allowed to work in this country should apply”. At first I thought this meant that you had to get a work visa, but I’ve since learned that this means you may apply only if you are from the UK or the European Union or already have settlement status.

More recently, some online applications have asked candidates to indicate whether or not they need a certificate of sponsorship. In some cases, when you tick this box a message pops up stating that you will not be considered. This seems like blatant discrimination.

I have heard that many universities are now reserving such sponsorship for higher-level readers or professors rather than for “lowly” lecturers and senior lecturers. This is disheartening, and it seems to limit the very nature of academia – surely bringing a variety of experts from around the world enriches the experience of students here in the UK.

I have friends in academia who can tell similar stories. One got married when she started a new post and moved to her new home near the university in Yorkshire a couple of years ago, only to be told that the institution had exceeded its quota for certificates of sponsorship and had to terminate her contract. She was no longer eligible for settlement, even though she’d spent almost a decade working in this country.

There seems to be no consistency in the application of the rules, and no preference for people who have contributed to the country and who are highly skilled – the very people the government claims it wants to attract. The government is guilty of speaking out of both sides of its mouth: while it claims that it wants people to come to study and work here, it makes it very difficult for them to do so. Ministers also say they want to invest in science and technology, my area of expertise, yet this doesn’t seem to count for anything when applying for a visa.

Apart from my work and visa woes, I’m happy here and I hope to stay, contributing to the economy and paying my taxes. However, faced with a bureaucratic and expensive system that seems to not value foreign academics, and with discriminatory hiring practices, I may well end up taking my expertise elsewhere. If I don’t get settlement status, I will leave and it will be the UK’s – and my students’ – loss. On many days, I think I simply don’t want to wait it out any longer in a place that doesn’t value me.

The author is a lecturer in digital media at a UK university.

Man walking on pavement at dusk

The process of obtaining a visa is long, convoluted and expensive. And now, the vitriol, the political rhetoric of anti-immigration, shouts at students to get out

Home Secretary Theresa May’s expressed desire to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants has a psychological effect on legal migrants, too

The UK government claims to be supportive of international students. Recent campaigns have stressed a desire to expand student numbers and to attract “the brightest and the best” to the country. Yet increasingly, UK immigration policy is creating a hostile environment from which foreign students recoil.

I should know: I was one of them. I came to the UK in 2009 on a student visa. The process of obtaining it was long, convoluted and expensive; if I hadn’t won an amazing scholarship to the University of Cambridge, I think this alone would have acted as a major deterrent. But while that process has got no easier in the subsequent four years, post-graduation opportunities are now fewer and the general environment towards immigrants has got a lot harsher.

The government phased out its post-study work visa in 2012, which used to allow international students the right to work for two years in the UK. Now there is the graduate entrepreneur visa (requiring “genuine and credible” business ideas) and the sponsorship visa (requiring employer sponsorship).

In practice, these visas fail to enable international students to stay on after studies. As Times Higher Education recently reported, just 119 one-year graduate entrepreneur visas were issued in the scheme’s first 12 months. Similarly, I know no one who has been successful in securing a sponsorship visa. The ugly truth is that most companies don’t sponsor – and when they do, it’s not recent graduates they are looking to hire.

The decline in student immigration since the visa changes were enacted suggests that they are actively discouraging international students from studying in the UK. According to the Home Office, in the year ended March 2013, there was a 9 per cent reduction in the number of study visas issued. Study-related admissions for the year ended June 2012 fell by 30 per cent compared with the previous 12 months.

“The hard part about the whole visa situation is that the ease of obtaining a student visa contrasts significantly with the difficulty of obtaining a work visa,” says my friend Deanie Vallone, a Cambridge graduate who was recently forced to leave the UK because, unlike me, she graduated after the new work visa rules came into effect.

“It’s frustrating that after putting all of this time, energy and money into educating me at one of the world’s best universities, it’s nearly impossible for me to secure a work visa in my field.”

This is a sentiment I hear echoed again and again.

Filling in paperwork, being fingerprinted and spending months without a passport are a small price to pay to study in such an amazing country. Yet students choose their universities with an eye towards future careers. While studying, they build connections, but by in effect closing the door to work after graduation, current UK policy renders these networks useless to international students.

Universities could help their international students by providing immigration and visa guidance – including before students arrive. While I was at Cambridge, the career centre would regularly host talks detailing the latest immigration reforms. I can’t praise this process enough. But universities can do only so much. The sad reality is that since I’ve arrived, the UK overall has become less friendly to foreigners.

The government says it wants to crack down on illegal immigration while keeping international students. But that hasn’t stopped it from recently announcing that international students will be charged to use the NHS. Besides, things don’t work like that. Initiatives such as the Home Office Twitter account’s depiction of raids on “illegal” foreign workers, the bus advertisements (albeit later repented of) ordering illegal immigrants to “go home!” and Home Secretary Theresa May’s expressed desire to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants all have their psychological effect on legal migrants, too.

Many of my friends have already left. Many are theoretically those immigrants the UK wants to keep. They came here legally. They attended one of England’s leading universities. They love the UK. Yet the vitriol, the political rhetoric of anti-immigration, shouts at them to get out.

The campaign of hate doesn’t just affect students here today. It filters into the future. The other day, I found myself standing in front of a group of American students. They were asking me if I’d recommend studying or working in England. I really wanted to say “yes”. But I couldn’t, because I knew what it’s like to be a foreigner here. “You can try,” I responded. “But it’s going to be hard.”

Danae Mercer is a freelance journalist and writer living in London.

Eminent, elderly, expressly invited…and rejected: organisers of academic conferences in the UK are dismayed by the rise in visa refusals

Bringing the world’s top anthropology conference to the UK for the first time since 1934 was quite a coup.

So organisers of the World Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, held in Manchester in August, were disappointed to not receive more support from the British embassies and border agencies that decided which scholars would get a visa.

Nine academics and one spouse were refused a visa, while several others obtained permission to attend only after appeals and intervention by the British Academy.

“One academic from a large research laboratory in India was refused a visa because he had a minor tear in the laminate cover of his passport,” says John Gledhill, professor of social anthropology at the University of Manchester.

“Thankfully, the British Academy helped the authorities see reason in that case,” he adds.

But several highly respected anthropologists were denied permission to travel to the UK for the event.

“The most outrageous case was of two retired Egyptian academics of advanced age. They had attended every congress since the 1960s, but were told they couldn’t come because they wanted to seek work in the UK,” Gledhill says.

Other academics from universities in India, Bangladesh and Russia were denied visas for similar reasons, he reports.

“It is ridiculous to think people will give up tenured academic positions to come here and seek casual work.”

More than 1,200 delegates attended the congress, which, organisers say, contributed more than £3 million to the Manchester economy, although Gledhill believes a further 500 potential attendees were deterred by visa problems.

The level of financial information requested by officials is also likely to put off some potential visitors because the questioning is “quite intrusive”, Gledhill adds.

Conference organisers automatically filter out potentially bogus scholars because they will be looking at academics’ credentials and their research papers, he says.

“I cannot think of a single case where someone has come to an international conference and then become an illegal immigrant,” he says.

“These conferences are big business – the university itself earned £250,000 from it – so we are really shooting ourselves in the foot by not welcoming scholars here, as well as poisoning our academic relations with other universities.”

The recent refusal of a visa to the eminent Algerian historian Sid-Ahmed Kerzabi has also proved contentious.

Kerzabi, a former director of both the Tassili n’Ajjer National Park, a world heritage site in the Sahara, and of the Bardo Museum in Algiers, was due to give the keynote lecture at a workshop at All Souls College, Oxford, in October, but the 81-year-old was told that there was “insufficient proof that he was not planning to settle in Britain”.

“We could have appealed the decision and maybe won, but he said this sort of thing is insulting, and he was not interested in coming any more,” says the event’s organiser, Alexander Morrison, lecturer in imperial history at the University of Liverpool.

Morrison believes that the incident is symptomatic of hardened attitudes towards scholars seeking to enter the UK for academic conferences. The British Academy and the Royal Society report that their fellows have raised several concerns about visas for academics being unfairly denied.

The Home Office says that it is keen to encourage academic visits, but rules must be obeyed.

But Morrison believes that the refusals, as well as delays in processing the visas that are granted, are doing much reputational damage to the UK. “It puts out the image that we are unwelcoming and not interested in intellectual exchange – too many countries are all too willing to believe Britain is an arrogant country.”

Jack Grove

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