Academics from European Union countries could lose their right to remain in the UK after Brexit if they spend extended periods of time on research leave abroad, ministers have indicated, triggering fresh warnings about Britain’s dwindling attractiveness as a destination for continental academics.
Responding to a parliamentary question on whether the Home Office would introduce a policy to protect European citizens working in UK universities, immigration minister Brandon Lewis said that settled status “would generally be lost if a person was absent from the UK for more than two years, unless they have strong ties here”.
The position of both the UK and EU was that applicants for settled status would need to demonstrate five years of continuous residence in the UK, Mr Lewis added, with the definition of this likely to be guided by EU rules that permit “absences of six months in any 12 months, or 12 months for an important reason, for example studying or being posted abroad”.
However, the exact details of the scheme remain unclear, with Mr Lewis stating that these would be published “in due course once an agreement has been reached”.
Anthony Kauders, reader in modern European history at Keele University, who has Austrian and US citizenship, told Times Higher Education that the rules had created uncertainty about his future in the UK.
“I received a three-year German Research Council grant from 2010 to 2013, which meant that I was unable to apply for permanent residence after Brexit,” Dr Kauders said. “Since this privilege requires five years of uninterrupted residence in the UK, I can therefore only apply in 2018. So the fact that my contract at Keele commenced in 2005 was immaterial.
“Scholars such as myself are wary of large grant applications that involve extended research periods abroad given the overall insecurity surrounding the status of Europeans.”
Many more academics could be affected by the proposed rules once the UK’s exit from the EU is concluded. About 17 per cent of academic staff at UK universities – 33,735 individuals – are from other EU countries.
Writing in THE earlier this year, Emily Michelson, senior lecturer in history at the University of St Andrews, recounted how the Home Office initially refused her application to settle in the UK on the grounds that she had spent a year on a fellowship in Italy, despite the fact that this experience was deemed a necessary part of her job by the university. The US-born academic was eventually granted indefinite leave to remain after a 14-month battle.
The Home Office says that the UK is still awaiting details of the EU’s position on whether citizens should be able to retain settled status even after spending more than two years abroad – a period of time that the department acknowledges is “inadequate in some circumstances”.
But Sophie Barrett-Brown, senior partner and head of UK practice at Laura Devine Solicitors, which specialises in immigration law, said that the UK government is not blameless in fuelling uncertainty for EU citizens, since ministers have remained evasive on the rules proposed.
Ms Barrett-Brown said that EU academics who are eligible for settled status would most likely be given indefinite leave to remain, similar to “permanent residence” under European law.
“The difference”, Ms Barrett-Brown explained, “is that permanent residence can only be lost if that person is absent from the UK for a continuous two-year period – so even if you come back in for one day, you’ll keep your status.”
“With indefinite leave, the rules are different about maintaining that. Individuals can lose settled status under UK domestic law if they are absent for more than two years at a single go, but even if returning within the allocated time frame, they would need to demonstrate that they are returning with the purpose of settlement.
“If the government wants people to demonstrate family ties, that they have a life here, then it is going to be a problem.”
Jessica Cole, head of policy at the Russell Group, said that the level of uncertainty facing university staff and students could having damaging consequences for research.
“Taking a research fellowship or joining an international research project must not jeopardise [academics’ chances of] acquiring or retaining settled status,” she said. “The longer this issue remains unresolved, the greater the potential for damage to a vital UK sector.”
Ms Cole added: “EU staff need to be able to plan for the future with certainty. These women and men are fundamental to ensuring that our universities can continue to deliver world-leading research.”