Dr Hollie Chandler is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Russell Group.
EU nationals form a huge part of the teaching, research and student communities at British universities. In the Russell Group alone there are 25,000 EU staff and over 60,000 EU students.
These EU nationals are making valuable contributions to our campuses and are investing in the UK; we value them highly and want them to stay, but they need solid guarantees about their future.
The plan for EU nationals set out by the Prime Minister at the end of last month gave us an idea of what the government wants a final agreement to look like, but many questions remain. Whilst a level of ambiguity is to be expected given the early stages of the negotiations, the current lack of clarity is causing concern for EU nationals at our universities. Particular areas of concern include the lack of clarity on eligibility for the new settled status, future rights, and the cost and the process of applying to stay.
For example, whilst the government intends eligibility for settled status to be based on a minimum length of residency in the UK and an assessment of conduct and criminality, it has not specified whether periods of absence from the UK, during residency, might jeopardise eligibility. Students and academics often spend short periods of time abroad to further their knowledge and expertise, to establish new international partnerships and to progress research collaborations. Such mobility is integral to life as an active researcher and important for the competitiveness of the UK’s research base. Could such endeavours jeopardise their eligibility for settled status, or even put this status at risk once it has been acquired?
Uncertainty over the cut-off date is making it difficult for current and prospective students to plan their next steps. With different rules expected to apply to dependents arriving before and after we leave the EU, families are trying to understand what steps they need to take to ensure they will be able to stay together. For EU students enrolling on UK courses this year and next, defining a cut-off date would help them better anticipate their prospective status and rights. The government has confirmed that these students will be eligible for student support and home fee status for the duration of their studies, which is very welcome. However, if such students arrive after the specified date it’s not clear what the terms of their residency will be or whether they’ll have the right to remain in the UK after their studies.
It is apparent that a new streamlined system will be needed to process applications for temporary and settled status. This was clearly acknowledged in the government’s proposals and their intention to use existing data it holds to minimise the evidence that applicants will need to submit is particularly welcome. It will be important for the Home Office to receive the necessary resource to implement such a system to ensure the cost and administrative burden to individuals is kept to a minimum.
Thousands of EU citizens applied for permanent residence after the referendum in an attempt to secure their rights. This included a large number of staff at universities. The time, effort and cost – especially the legal fees – of acquiring this status has been a huge burden on many individuals and families. Whilst the government has promised that transitioning those from permanent residence to the new settled status will be a streamlined process, we think this should be done automatically, using data the Home Office already holds.
Russell Group universities are supporting EU staff and students in a number of ways to provide clarity where possible, to try and reduce uncertainty and to encourage them to stay in the UK. This includes providing information online and in meetings with senior staff and HR; organising events with external lawyers and access to legal advice; and providing financial support, including interest free loans to finance immigration-related costs.
Our universities are providing this support because they want to retain and continue to attract talented academics, technicians, and students from the EU. Their contribution to the research and teaching at our institutions is crucial. EU nationals add to the diversity of our campuses and enrich the learning experience for all.
We need to do everything we can to ensure these individuals feel valued and supported to stay in the UK. We are asking government to provide the necessary clarity at the earliest opportunity to enable this to happen, and will be following up with ministers and officials as a matter of urgency.