One of the UK’s most proudly international universities has been accused of rowing back on a proposal to offer more generous support for foreign staff requiring work-sponsored visas.
Trade union representatives at the University of Sheffield said that they were disappointed that the institution’s executive board had rejected a plan to reimburse visa-holders for the cost of their compulsory £400-a-year NHS surcharge.
Visa costs for staff from outside the European Union are set to increase to £3,220 later this year, including the health surcharge, which is doubling from £200.
Staff members taking jobs at Sheffield are currently entitled to reimbursement of registration and permanent residency costs by the university. For staff from outside the EU, this includes reimbursement of application fees made in the UK at a cost of £677 per person.
Earlier this year, Sir Keith Burnett, Sheffield’s outgoing vice-chancellor, met board members to discuss the potential for full reimbursement of all visa-related costs for staff, as well as future support to include a loan facility for application fees and NHS surcharges for all dependants.
Sheffield’s executive board later considered a report, seen by Times Higher Education, stating that visa costs “have significantly increased in recent years” and acknowledging concerns that thousands more individuals could be subject to them once the UK leaves the EU next year.
The paper outlined how financial support could be extended to cover “all employee visa-related costs” as well as a “loan facility for visa application fees and NHS surcharge for dependants”.
While the loan facility has now been agreed, Sheffield has now decided that the NHS surcharge is not a visa-related cost.
Mark Pendleton, lecturer in Japanese studies at Sheffield, claimed that the “secret overturning of agreements” was a “slap in the face to those of us who have been negotiating in good faith with the university”.
Sheffield has been praised for its #weareinternational campaign and for its commitment to continuing to recruit and support foreign staff after Brexit.
Dr Pendleton, an Australian who is the equality and diversity officer for the University and College Union’s Sheffield branch, said that he had paid £7,000 from his own pocket to date to work at the university. He highlighted that Tier 2 visas now accounted for about one-third of the take-home salary of a lecturer with a family of four.
“International staff just want a fair deal that leaves them with the same take-home pay as UK and EU staff,” Dr Pendleton said. “The university where the #weareinternational campaign began needs to get real about what internationalisation means [and] start putting its money where its mouth is.”
Dr Pendleton added: “With the impending retirement of Sir Keith, a strong champion of international staff and students, this [failure to offer full reimbursement] is also a worrying sign about Sheffield’s ongoing commitment to leading the sector on internationalisation.”
A Sheffield spokeswoman said that the university was “committed to providing comprehensive support and advice to our international staff and students”.
“[We] operate an interest-free loan scheme to reduce the financial impact of visa application and associated costs that are not covered by the reimbursement scheme and to help spread the impact of costs associated with the NHS surcharge and visa applications for dependants,” she said.