Visa system ‘does not function effectively’ for UK universities

Cambridge vice-chancellor says reforms are needed if foreign researchers are to be attracted to post-Brexit Britain

June 22, 2018
Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, in conversation with John Gill, editor, Times Higher Education, at the Huawei Academic Salon

The UK government must review visa and immigration policies for university staff and students if efforts to boost research and innovation are to be successful post-Brexit, according to the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

Stephen Toope told a conference that the ability to collaborate with and to attract the best talent from Europe was “crucial”, but, he continued, the current visa system – which academics from the European Union are likely to have to go through once the UK leaves the bloc – “does not function effectively”.

Many academics from outside the EU already must go through the Tier 2 skilled worker visa route. However, the number of such visas that can be issued is capped at 20,700 annually, and the number of applications has exceeded the allocation of available places in recent months.

Pressures on NHS recruitment have resulted in doctors and nurses being taken out of the cap, a move that has fuelled pressure for similar exemptions to be made for researchers.

Professor Toope was speaking at an academic “salon” organised by the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. The event also heard a commitment from the universities minister, Sam Gyimah, that the government would “tackle a shortage of STEM skills to develop a dynamic UK economy” after Brexit.

“The UK needs to be a magnet for talent,” Mr Gyimah said. “At undergraduate level, postgraduate level and beyond, we need to be as open as possible to attract those people into our country.”

However, Professor Toope warned that the current “impasse” in Brexit negotiations “seems not to be propitious for innovation in UK universities”.

“It is very clear to me that certain things must be in place if the promises outlined by the minister are to happen…We have to sort out our immigration policy,” he said.

“We have to make sure students have the ability to come here and feel welcomed here, and we have to attract talent at all levels; so we cannot rely on the Tier 2 visa system because it does not function effectively in this space.”

Earlier this month, the UK eased the visa application process for students from 11 countries including China, but the decision not to put India on this list triggered anger in the country.

Meanwhile, reports of foreign researchers in the UK being “unfairly monitored” by university management for visa purposes and being threatened with deportation if they do not comply have added to concerns of a “hostile environment” within academia.

“The UK must think about the message it is sending out to the rest of the world,” Professor Toope added. “Are we genuinely a global Britain, or are we protecting a notion of historical Britain that no longer exists?”

Under proposals announced by the government on 21 June, EU citizens and family members who have been in the UK for five years by the end of 2020 will be able to apply for settled status, meaning that they can go on living and working in the UK indefinitely. Those who have arrived by 31 December 2020 but do not have five years’ residence can seek to stay until they have, at which point they may apply for settled status.

However, the Russell Group raised concerns that rules that prevent EU nationals seeking settled status from leaving the country for six months in any year would pose a “serious challenge” for academics who might need to undertake overseas study.

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