Graduate visa woes ‘holding back’ UK science – Times Higher Education

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Recent efforts by governments across the world to attract top scientific and graduate talent should prompt the UK to rethink its “costly” and “inflexible” visas for highly skilled workers, scientists and immigration experts have said.
While the UK’s introduction of a five-year Global Talent visa for research leaders, and the return of the two-year post-study work visa two years ago, have been welcomed by the sector, there are growing concerns that other countries are now moving faster to liberalise their visa regimes to make it easier for highly skilled staff, including researchers and PhD graduates, to emigrate.
In the US, the Biden-controlled White House is pushing to exempt those who hold a PhD in science or engineering from green card quotas, potentially fast-tracking these applications, while Australia has recently extended post-study visa rights for international students by two years for those working in areas of skills shortage, allowing these graduates and their families to stay for up to six years.
Several European countries are also relaxing immigration controls amid post-Covid labour shortages. From July, non-European Union students in Spain were allowed to start working in the country as soon as they graduate, having previously been asked to wait for three years before getting a job, while Finland has launched a “QuickLane” fast-track, long-term visa for highly skilled workers and their families that will take just 14 days to process. Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden have also loosened rules to attract highly qualified staff from outside the EU, while more than 25 countries have launched “digital nomad visas”, a low-cost worker pass popular with remote workers who travel frequently.
Those innovations has led some experts to question whether the most frequently used visa route for universities – Tier 2 – is deterring foreign academics from considering the UK. Last month UK Research and Innovation chief executive Dame Ottoline Leyser became the latest senior figure to highlight the high upfront costs of visas and healthcare surcharges, which can cost almost £16,000 for a researcher, their partner and two children applying for a five-year visa, according to Universities UK.
“UK universities, and companies in general, are having to fight for talent and workers whose eyes are certainly being turned elsewhere,” said Joanna Hunt, an immigration law specialist at Fieldfisher who recently gave evidence to the House of Commons’ science committee on this issue. “Our immigration has always been set up to limit numbers coming into the country and, while it’s easier than some places, other countries increasingly understand you might need to provide certain incentives to attract students and graduates.”
Recent changes such as the Graduate Talent visa did not go far enough, added Ms Hunt. “It’s a great visa if it applies to you but it’s not as applicable as it could be,” she explained. “What is missing is a broad highly skilled migrant visa based on age, education, qualifications and language skills – it looked as if we might get this but then it was restricted to graduates from elite universities, the majority of which were in the US,” continued Ms Hunt, referring to the ‘high potential individual’ visa route announced in May that was restricted to alumni from top-50 ranked universities. “It means we’re fighting for talent against Silicon Valley, or other North American companies who can afford significant salaries, when you need to encourage people from India or China to come here,” she added.
Beyond reducing the relatively high cost of UK visas, increasing the flexibility of qualifying for settled status would be a powerful way to increase the UK’s attractiveness to foreign talent, said Raj Mann, a Director at Vialto Partners, an immigration consultancy formerly part of PwC, who also gave evidence to the House of Lords science committee on visas.
“Highly skilled migrants are often highly mobile. If you’re a graduate or PhD graduate, the chances are you’re probably going to be working across borders at some point. Current routes to settlement state that absences from the UK must be no more than 180 days in any calendar year during the qualifying period, often serving to anchor individuals hoping to obtain settled status,” explained Ms Mann. “Increasing the flexibility for highly skilled, highly mobile foreign talent, so routes to settlement in the UK better align with new, more global ways of working would be a significant step for the UK to not only attract highly skilled talent, but also to retain it,” she added.
Permitting international students, including postgraduates and PhDs, to count their study period towards the five years of residency required for settlement – as suggested by Professor Leyser for PhD students – could prove an effective tool in attracting global talent, added Ms Mann.
“If you really want to attract – and importantly, retain – top talent, people need to feel a sense of security, achieved in part by having a clear and accessible route to settlement,” she explained. “Covid has been a game changer for the way we work, travel and live with an increasing need for employers to offer remote and hybrid working options to remain competitive. The EU and Australia are two examples of regions now directly addressing how their systems can be more flexible and agile for both business and foreign talent, in light of these new post-pandemic ways of working,” she concluded.
Maggie Dallman, vice-president (international) at Imperial College, said that the “upfront costs of visas are definitely an issue” when recruiting suitable candidates. “Academics are still coming but, since Brexit, there are now fewer applicants, of whom more drop out, and more questions about where the UK is going on scientific cooperation,” said Professor Dallman.
“The post-study work visa made a dramatic difference in the type of student coming to the UK and there are other quite simple things like this that would also have a big impact.”
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