PhD students ‘shunning UK over tardy security checks’

Lengthy government security checks on STEM postgraduates are causing chaos for university research as doctoral candidates go elsewhere, says Russell Group

March 9, 2023
Source: iStock

International PhD students are waiting 10 weeks on average for UK government security checks to be completed, leading some world-class early career scientists to go elsewhere, leading universities have warned.

According to Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office guidelines, pre-visa checks on postgraduate researchers in security-sensitive areas should take no longer than 30 working days.

However, a survey of 1,450 students and staff in UK universities conducted by the Russell Group found that student applications under the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (Atas) were taking 53 working days to approve on average, with just over half of students waiting for more than 30 working days for their approvals.

In one case, a postgraduate student was forced to wait almost six months for their approval, with other delays reported to the survey causing some fully-funded PhD students to go to other countries or postpone their arrival in the UK for many months.

At the University of Manchester, several PhD students decided to take studentships to other countries after Atas delays of several months, causing major disruption and delays to research projects. If this continued, warned Manchester professors, it would make it much harder to attract industry sponsorship to university projects.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said the delays – first reported by Times Higher Education in November – were causing “real problems” and were “undermining vital research and putting off some of the most talented people from around the world”.

“The UK has always been a magnet for the most talented people from around the world and, while no one disputes the need for due diligence when they are working in sensitive areas, that process must be clear, efficient and properly resourced,” said Dr Bradshaw, who urged the government to “sit down with the sector to look at ways to streamline the process”.

The survey’s respondents also described a lack of communication from advisers, confusing questions on the application form for those whose first language is not English and inadequate guidance. This has led to a high volume of duplicate submissions and errors, which cause more delays.

The alarm over Atas delays comes in the wake of growing concerns about the level of research bureaucracy faced by universities in relation to overseas collaborations. A recent report by the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (Arma) estimated that research security checks on overseas partners were now costing institutions around £11 million a year.

The worsening Atas situation was also criticised by Sir Peter Mathieson, principal of the University of Edinburgh, who said that “delays in the operation of the expanded Atas requirements are now seriously impeding our ability to deliver on our intentions”.

To tackle backlogs and ensure timely Atas checks, the government should overhaul communications to applicants to reduce confusion and cut the number of unnecessary duplicate applications, work with the sector to enhance guidance and ensure the consistency of advice to reduce errors that lead to processing delays, and increase resources in processing centres, the Russell Group said.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities