Academic visas ‘political’ block on South-North links

Professors in global North should come south as temporary solution to immigration headaches, Rwandan ambassador tells event

July 5, 2023

Academic visa issues and security concerns are still hampering the growth of international development research partnerships, the Times Higher Education Europe Summit heard.

“Partnerships that are on location are the most successful and they are the ones that are most likely to be sustained,” Cheryl Regehr, provost and vice-president at the University of Toronto, told the event, hosted by the University of Warsaw.

“Whether or not people can get visas to go back and forth is very much a political issue and certain regions of the world get expedited visas, other regions do not,” she said, adding that “concerns about research security” in recent months could “change relationships dramatically in very short periods of time”.

“Ideally we would have scholars going back and forth so they can have the opportunity to experience the reality of each other’s environments, but there are certain areas where people cannot easily get visas to come into the country,” she said.

Dr Regehr called on university leaders and academics worldwide “to be working at their political levels” because politicians “hold a lot of sway about what is easy to do and what is far more difficult to do” when it comes to partnerships between the global North and South.

Speaking on the same panel, Anastase Shyaka, Rwanda’s ambassador to Poland, called for a “massive partnership” to build up teaching and research capacity in the east African country and across the continent more generally, instead of students travelling to study in Europe.

He said appeals by African ministries to soften visa rules for academics travelling north were often fruitless and that, instead, their academics in the North should consider coming to Africa as a temporary solution while political hurdles were cleared.

“We in the South haven’t stopped professors coming, so we can still have professors from the North, coming down, making a difference, and then five years down the road they will not say no to visas,” he said.

In the UK, a clampdown on immigration has disrupted commonplace academic exchanges, with Ebola researchers from Sierra Leone blocked from attending training and almost all the African delegates at one LSE workshop barred at the border.

In recent years, scrutiny of international students’ bank balances has also stopped many from coming to study, particularly from India, China, Nigeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Professor Shyaka said Rwanda’s relatively young vocational education sector was particularly in need of experienced partners. Speaking on the same panel, Brian MacCraith, senior adviser to the president of Arizona State University, said short courses and other technical training for careers in environmental technology should be a priority for institutions in the North and South, and could form the “core” of such exchanges.

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