Foreign academics are being left with thousands of pounds in debt after being forced to foot the bill for visas and permanent residency costs to continue working in UK universities, some have told Times Higher Education.
Currently, employees from outside the European Union are granted a temporary work visa lasting up to five years. Between their fifth and sixth year of working in the country, individuals have the option to apply for permanent residency – at a cost of £2,389, as of 6 April this year. That is a £92, or 4 per cent, increase on the previous cost.
An employer-sponsored visa will cost up to £3,220 from later this year including an immigration health surcharge of £400 per year – doubled from £200 in April – with any accompanying family members requiring their own individual visas.
There are warnings that thousands more academics from EU nations could be subjected to the fees after the UK leaves the union next year, if EU nationals are no longer automatically eligible to live and work in the UK.
Gareth Edwards, an Australian citizen and geography lecturer at the University of East Anglia, said that he was surprised when the university refused to assist with visa costs after offering him the position.
“I was eligible for a relocation allowance but was told I couldn’t claim a visa under that,” he explained. “I said ‘why not?’ since local staff can claim the cost of stamp duty, but I have to have this visa to take the job. I was just told no.”
In the past year alone, Dr Edwards said that he has spent about 30 per cent of his take-home salary on visas and indefinite leave to remain applications for himself and his family.
Applying for permanent residency in December “was an expensive decision”, he said. His other option “was to leave the country and to go back to Australia without having a job. But I certainly considered it very hard.”
UEA has since changed its policy to allow staff to put relocation allowances towards visa costs.
One member of staff who secured permanent residency, who asked for her name and institution not to appear in print, said: “Five years down the road, people are hit with these enormous fees they are not prepared for. It wouldn’t occur to them in advance.”
After applying for permanent residency once her five-year work visa came to an end in 2010, the staff member was “in debt for a couple of years, paying interest” after borrowing the money needed.
“I was resentful,” she said. “Now I understand my university has a loan programme, which is good in that they’ve acknowledged the situation, but it’s bad in the sense that people still have to pay for it themselves.”
While there is currently no legal obligation on employers to pay visa costs on behalf on the internationals they employ, the higher education sector is unusual in not offering to pay the bills as an incentive, suggested Kevin Poulter an employment lawyer at Child&Child solicitors.
“The reality is that if we want people to come into the country, it’s going to be down to the employers and not the Home Office to incentivise that,” he added.
Mark Pendleton, an Australian national working in Japanese studies at the University of Sheffield, said that HR departments are also often ill-equipped to support staff within their applications.
“Universities want to talk about how international they are, but what does that mean in practice?” he said. “For international staff, it doesn’t mean anything at all other than big frustration. I know of several cases of people who have jumped ship because it’s simply unsustainable.”
He added: “St Andrews is seen as the gold standard as they pay all their staff and dependants’ visa costs and offer legal advice too, but many universities don’t provide a thing,” he noted. “My argument is that if we want to be an international sector it should be standard across the board.”
Dr Edwards said: “I think it’s flown under the radar for a long time because, certainly until 2015 when the big rises came in, it was expensive but I guess a lot of academics just thought, okay, it’s not a deal breaker.” But now “the goalposts keep shifting”, he added.
“If I were presented with a situation now where I was offered a job but told I’d have to cover my own visa costs, I’d be forced to say no – I couldn’t afford to. I’ve got two daughters now, so that would be about £8,800 just to arrive.
“Particularly in the context of Brexit, if universities won’t cover these costs for international staff then they stop coming and they will leave,” Dr Edwards warned.