A new visa sponsorship scheme for international academics aims to make it easier for top researchers from outside the European Union to work in UK institutions.
In a surprise announcement, Home Office officials said that the new programme would operate as an extension of the current Tier 5 temporary worker visa route, allowing non-EU nationals to come to the UK for up to two years for the purposes of scientific research.
UKRI will take ownership of the initiative and will be able to directly sponsor highly skilled individuals for the visas, along with 12 approved research organisations.
New Home Office rules state that those eligible for sponsorship include academics, researchers, scientists, research engineers or other skilled research technology specialists “who will be hosted through an approved research institute, in a supernumerary role”.
“The sponsored researcher may give lectures (which does not amount to a formal teaching post), act as an examiner, undertake skill development/knowledge transfer, undertake a period of work-based training/work experience/internship/placement or work on research collaborations,” the Home Office says.
Currently, non-EU academics must apply to work in the UK under an employer-sponsored visa – which can cost the individual thousands of pounds and are limited in supply. EU nationals may also have to apply for visas after Brexit, dependent on what kind of deal the UK reaches with the EU on migration.
By allowing research funders to take on the responsibility of sponsorship, it is hoped that universities and research institutes will have access to greater numbers of talented foreign researchers.
Beth Thompson, head of UK and EU Policy for the Wellcome Trust, welcomed the Tier 5 extension, adding that it would “make it easier for organisations, such as the Wellcome Sanger Institute [a genetics and genomics research centre near Cambridge], to bring in the skills and knowledge needed to advance pioneering scientific research”.
Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, agreed that the move was a “positive step”, but warned that it was not a complete solution. “Wider reform of the [immigration] system is needed,” he said.
Institutions awarded licences to sponsor individuals under the new “Science, Research and Academia” visa scheme include the Francis Crick Institute, the Pirbright Institute and the Natural History Museum, but other information on the scheme is limited thus far.
It is yet to be confirmed, for example, whether there will be a limit on the number of Tier 5 visas offered, whether sponsors will fund the visas, or whether the scheme will be extended to include other bodies.
Immigration minister Caroline Nokes said that the announcement came in response to recognition of “the crucial contribution science makes to the UK economy”.
“These changes will make it easier for international researchers to work and train in the UK,” she said. “We must have an immigration system that makes sure we can attract leading international talent and benefit from their knowledge and expertise.”
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will monitor the activity of the scheme “on a regular basis with UKRI”, the Home Office said, “to provide assurance that it is meeting the criteria for a Tier 5 scheme”.