Staff out of pocket as sector splits on aid for foreign recruits

Academics call on employers to provide clarity over support provided amid huge variance in policies within sector, but sky-high costs could deter institutions extending their generosity

January 10, 2019
Source: Getty

Overseas staff at some of the UK’s most prestigious universities face paying immigration fees thousands of pounds higher than their counterparts at similar institutions, according to a Times Higher Education survey that reveals wide variation in the support offered to international employees as Brexit approaches.

In the survey of Russell Group members, no two responses were the same: some reimbursed visa costs for workers but not their families, while others offered only interest-free loans. Some of the institutions – many of which employ a high proportion of staff from the European Union and further afield – said that they did not have a policy dedicated to the issue.

The issue has been put into sharp focus as the UK’s exit from the EU nears, with the proposed move of staff from the bloc on to the same immigration regime as international employees after 29 March, meaning that they will need visas too, and promising sharply increased costs for universities with generous support packages – and big bills for staff at institutions that do not.

Analysis by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association has shown that institutions would face a bill of £32.5 million in fees alone in the first year of an immigration regime that required all newly recruited staff to get a Tier 2 skilled worker visa – equivalent to £2,953 per academic (and slightly more, £3,317, per professional services employee, if an exemption for recruits with PhD-level qualifications is maintained) – if they opted to cover all the costs.

Ucea said that the annual cost of maintaining EU employees’ Tier 2 visas would come to a further £86.4 million after five years.

The large bills may explain some institutions’ reluctance to subsidise them. In THE’s survey, the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow appeared the most generous, confirming that they would cover not only the visa and pre-application costs for EU staff, but that they would reimburse international staff for their visas and the £400 annual healthcare surcharge required of them.

Edinburgh is currently the only Russell Group institution to extend its financial support to cover staff families and dependants. At the other end of the scale, the University of Liverpool said that it did not currently cover the cost of any international visas or the pre-application fee for EU citizens seeking settled status. The University of York said that it did not currently cover any costs beyond the £65 pre-application settlement fee for EU staff.

Meanwhile, the University of Nottingham said that staff seeking any kind of visa would be eligible for an interest-free loan only, and Imperial College London said that support for visa costs was at the discretion of individual departments.

Half the mission group’s 24 member institutions said that they would not cover the NHS surcharge.

Matt Waddup, the University and College Union’s head of policy and campaigns, said that “at a time of such continuing uncertainty”, the variation in support provided “can only add to the stress for staff and their families”.

“All universities should ensure they provide proper financial support and advice for EU and non-EU international staff given the current prohibitively expensive visa and immigration system,” he said.

Gregor Gall, an affiliate research associate in economic and social history at Glasgow, explained that the discrepancies felt were a probable consequence of the “competitive dynamics of the international labour market for academic staff”.

“The more research-intensive universities with greater resources will be the ones that are more able to make a freer decision about their policy, and are likely then to give more financial help to smooth the recruitment of academics (and their families) from EU countries,” he said. “This is not necessarily fair nor ethical but it does reflect the institutional differences in the distribution of resources and the difference in market positions in higher education.”

However, universities have been warned that their efforts to support EU staff as Brexit approaches could unsettle their employees from the rest of the world.

Timothy Devinney, leadership chair in international business at the University of Leeds, said that covering EU settlement costs – as the vast majority of Russell Group members will – would be “discriminatory” if institutions did not also cover international employees’ fees for visa renewals and indefinite leave to remain applications. “It implies that one set of employees are worth supporting while another class are not,” he said.

Gareth Edwards, an Australian citizen and geography lecturer at the University of East Anglia, said that while it was “only right” that universities offer to pay the £65 fee for EU staff obtaining settled status, “the same treatment should be extended to non-EU staff”.

A five-year Tier 2 visa costs individuals £1,220 plus £2,000 for the health surcharge. Families face a multiplication of these costs.

“Immigration costs are presenting a major barrier to non-EU academics wishing to contribute to the UK higher education sector and British society more broadly,” Dr Edwards said. “Support from employers is urgently needed.”

Support for immigration fees at Russell Group universities: survey results

Institution EU settled status pre-application cost Tier 2 visa Tier 2 extension Indefinite leave to remain Immigration healthcare surcharge Families and dependants Comments
University of Birmingham Yes No No Yes No No "We provide a range of support and guidance to staff which includes a peer mentoring scheme matching staff going through the process with those who have completed it."
University of Bristol Yes Yes Yes Yes No No Relocation assistance may be claimed by eligible new staff appointed on contracts of one year or more. "We would not generally support legal costs/support."
University of Cambridge Yes No No No No EU families only "We offer an interest free loan scheme for employees and their dependants who apply for Tier 2 visas. No other visa type is covered under the loan scheme. We will also make a contribution towards the cost of obtaining a Permanent Residence Card, for those European staff members who took that step after June 2016."
Durham University Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Staff must be on permanent or a minimum two-year contract.
University of Edinburgh Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes "We provide an interest-free loan (maximum £10K) to help with indefinite leave to remain costs, for staff member and their dependants."
University of Glasgow Yes Yes Yes No Yes No Costs reimbursed for incoming main applicants but not dependants
Imperial College London Yes Yes Yes Yes No Varies Recommendations only, made at department's own discretion. Salary advance available for ILR
University of Leeds Yes Yes Yes No No No Interest-free loans available on case-by-case basis.
University of Liverpool No No No No No No "In accordance with the University’s relocation scheme, new employees regardless of their home location can claim for the cost of removal and relocation."
London School of Economics Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes, EU families only Relocation package of up to 20 per cent of starting salary for faculty appointments coming from outside EU.
University of Manchester Yes Yes Yes No No No Interest-free loan of up to £8,000 for IHS and dependants' costs
Newcastle University Yes Yes Yes No No Yes, first-time visa application only Interest-free loans available
University of Nottingham Yes No No No No No Application and permanent residency application reimbursed for EU employees only (applying after 23 June 2016).
University of Oxford Yes Yes No No No EU families only Visa loan available. Recommendations only, with exception of £65 pre-settlement policy. First-time application reimbursed only; departments may decide to pay Tier 2 extensions.
Queen Mary, University of London Yes Yes Yes No Yes No

"We offer an interest free loan for settlement applications. Legal fees can also be included in this loan."

Queen's University Belfast Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes, excluding ILR

Permanent staff may claim £1,000 in relocation costs, plus 20 per cent of the basic starting salary, increased to £2,000 for non-EU recruits.

University of Sheffield Yes Yes No Yes No No University offers interest-free loan to reduce financial impact of visa application costs and provides additional support include access to free legal helpline.
University of Southampton Yes Yes No No No No "We are supporting staff from EU countries to apply to the Home Office Settlement Scheme pilot by the provision of android phones to complete their application." 
UCL Yes Yes Yes No No No "UCL has also increased its relocation supplement for overseas recruits from £10K per annum to £20K per annum - to help with the costs related to immigration, as well as wider costs related to relocation."
University of Warwick Yes Yes Yes EU employees only Varies Varies Some charges reimbursed or given as a loan on case-by-case basis. Reimbursement of Tier 2 extension and dependents at discretion of individual academic department.
University of York Yes No No No No No Relocation expenses up to £8,000 can be claimed for contracts of more than two years.


Print headline: UK sector splits on aid for foreign recruits

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Reader's comments (1)

Can I just point out here that not all non-EU higher education staff are academics? A lot of us are, for instance, technical staff of one type or another.