Fresh anger over UK visa regime as scholar forced to leave Oxford

Home Office decision to decline a visa for postgraduate researcher’s 22-month-old baby sparks anguish at laboratory ‘struggling’ to recruit

May 24, 2018
Silhouetted figure holds Union Jack
Source: Alamy

Fresh calls have been made for a systematic review of the UK’s visa application process for foreign researchers and their families after one of the University of Oxford’s “brightest” new recruits was forced to leave her post and return to China.

Fengying Liu, a postdoctoral researcher in pathology, was recruited to Oxford’s Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in October last year. She acquired the Tier 2 visa necessary to take up the role and work in the UK, but a separate dependency visa for her 22-month-old daughter was later rejected by the Home Office.

Citing the inflexibility of the British visa process and the unaffordable cost of a resubmission, Dr Liu said that she had no choice but to leave her new role and “give up hope” of working in the UK as a scientist.

Her departure has been seen as another manifestation of the perceived hostility of the UK’s immigration regime to foreign researchers and has fuelled elite universities’ fears about their ability to recruit and retain the best international talent post-Brexit.

Ulrike Gruneberg, a Medical Research Council senior research fellow and principal investigator of the laboratory that recruited Dr Liu, told Times Higher Education that she already faced “extreme problems” hiring suitable candidates, which she attributed in part to the “complicated and flawed” nature of the UK immigration system.

The struggle to recruit has intensified since the referendum vote to leave the European Union, Dr Gruneberg added. “[We] don’t get any applications from the EU now and there are hardly any qualified British candidates for postdoc positions, so it becomes much more important for us to be able to employ people from outside the EU.

“My concern is that British science is just going to collapse.”

Dr Liu had applied for the Oxford research role after completing her PhD at Heidelberg University in Germany, where she had been living with her husband, another Chinese scientist, and baby. On being offered the position funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, she moved to the UK without her husband and daughter, having made the decision to apply for their visas separately to make the costs more manageable.

However, a technicality in UK immigration law that requires parents to seek visas together with their children meant that the separate application for Dr Liu’s baby was refused.

“The reason my daughter got rejected is because we did not apply as a family,” Dr Liu told THE. “I did not understand this at the time. It was also too expensive – about €1,400 [£1,226] per person for the visa application alone.”

Employer-sponsored UK visas cost up to £3,220 including an immigration health surcharge of £400 per year – doubled from £200 in April. Given that accompanying family members require their own visas too, the cost of moving to the UK even for a short period of time can add up to several thousand pounds for a family.

While Oxford was able to reimburse Dr Liu’s own visa costs, the policy does not extend to dependants.

The fact that Dr Liu did not completely understand the visa application rules came as “some failing on Oxford’s part”, Dr Gruneberg admitted. “I felt awful. As an employer, you hire someone in good faith and then you essentially make them go through hell,” she said.

“[Dr Liu] was our brightest candidate – the only possible candidate. But, looking at the Home Office website myself, it’s difficult even for someone with a PhD who speaks English very well to understand. On a human level, it’s terrible.”

Dr Gruneberg wrote to her laboratory’s funding bodies, university leaders and her local MP, but while much sympathy was expressed there was “nothing to be done to change the situation”.

Dr Liu was advised to reapply for her husband and daughter’s visas. But at a potential further cost of £4,400 for the two of them without incorporating travel costs, she opted to terminate her contract at Oxford early and seek work in China.

“I don’t know how they can think each person can pay so much even for a baby. We were just PhD students who had just graduated [and we] did not have savings to fall back on,” Dr Liu said. “Something needs to change. It’s a fundamental problem for young researchers coming to the UK.”

While universities could do more to assist recruits in their visa processes, Dr Liu suggested that funding bodies responsible for sponsoring postdoctoral places could help to pick up the bill. “They need to give more consideration not only to funding the cost of the project but the visa, too,” she said.

The debate over visa limits in the UK comes amid growing concern about the impact of migration restrictions in many of the leading higher education nations. The US is reportedly considering limiting the flow of Chinese researchers into the country, amid concerns about espionage and the flow of sensitive data, while Australian universities are caught in the crossfire of increasing tensions with China and are also contending with visa reforms.

Speaking earlier this month, Louise Richardson, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, said that British institutions including her own could struggle even further to attract talent once the UK leaves the EU.

“Personally, I think we are all in trouble in England, Ireland and the rest of the EU over Brexit,” she said. “We know [our elite status] rests on the excellence of research from people who [come] from abroad…It is painful for many of us as committed internationalists, citizens of the world, to find our country turning inward.”

A Home Office spokeswoman said that international collaboration was “essential” to the success of the UK’s universities and that the government therefore “welcome[d] academics visiting the UK”.

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Reader's comments (5)

It does strike me as a man with average intelligence a bit oafish. It is one world and all of us live here. What is the problem with taking down the toll gates? Does money have to be made and siphoned to some ones pocket in order for another human to be recognized? We really should stop thinking as though we are inhabitants of warring states and open rather than close doors to learning and cooperation. There is no benefit stemming from clearly outdated and obstructive policies which hinder human progress. Truly absurd.
For these very same reasons my husband, a senior lecturer at Bournemouth University, and I had to separate our family because we couldnt afford the fees as well. We originally came over three years ago and paid all the fees out of pocket for myself and my son, the Uni covered his tier two visa fees. But when we went to renew, everything had jumped in prices as Americans over there, and with the addition of another son while we were living there. We just couldnt afford to lose so much money that just went out into the void. So now, my husband is staying at the Uni and myself and my two boys are now living in my parents house to help and possibly save some money. Its horrible. I was also working there in the restaurant industry. Its not like we weren’t paying into the system we happened to be living in. And now im dealing with a husband who is missing out on his 9 month old son and his 10 year old son. This has been the hardest thing to deal with. No one should have to make a decision on splitting a family up die to thousands of dollars just to get a stamp on a passport!
Hi, I'm the postdoc of the story. I'm very sorry to hear your story like mine. As a mom, I completely understand how hard is your situation spliting with your husband and taking care of your two kids alone. It's good to know someone sharing the similar experience with me, but on the other hand it's so sad to know another cases like this happened to young international scientists trying to work in the UK. Let's hope it will change in the future. All good wishes for your family! You are not alone!
Sorry, but this is entirely a failing of Oxford uni and whoever organised the postdoc for not advising the candidate correctly. It should have been fairly obvious to anyone with or without a PhD that if a family is coming over to study then they need a family visa. While in the wake of a recent referendum some such as Dr Gruneberg and Oxford uni might want to paint this as yet another manifestation of the "hostile environment", the rules on families are quite well-known and the PI should have incorporated sufficient funds into the bid to cover visa expenses for those with dependants - or maybe the uber rich Oxford uni could have actually just paid for the family visa application out of its own pocket. As for Oxford VC's carping about elite status resting on foreign academics, maybe if the uni actually paid more attention to attracting low income students to study there and cared about social mobility and not just the sons and daughters of the rich then maybe the uni's elite status wouldn't have to rest so much on attracting academics from overseas.
If the UK government really wanted to attract people from abroad it would not create all these pointless barriers and be so inflexible and harsh in its enforcement thereof. It is very difficult and rather pointless for employers to have to jump through hoops because it is a zero sum game. If they succeed the government will simply raise the barriers to achieve its objective of drastically reducing net immigration. Similarly, the government is determined to cut spending on programmes that benefit low income people and is opposed attempts to level the playing field and reduce inequality, it is very unfair to blame Oxford University, which is trying very hard reduce inequality and improve access and, unlike the government, putting its money where its mouth is. However it should be obvious to that Oxford alone cannot solve the problem. It requires concerted action in a wide range of areas, and really resources.