Fixing overseas staff recruitment needs more than a status update

So the Prime Minister announces science policy on Facebook Live these days, and that’s where we are as a nation right now.

OK, a slight exaggeration – the PM first floated the idea of reforming immigration rules for scientists and supporting projects that would suddenly become ineligible for Horizon 2020 in the event of no deal during a visit to the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the home of the European Commission funded Joint European Torus.

It was one of Johnson’s trademark “non-announcement announcements”. No speech has been published, the Facebook broadcast itself was light on detail, and when you cut through the flim-flam about the “humble bicycle” and suchlike in the press release we are left with a commitment to consult with the sector to develop a new fast-track visa route for Tier 1 immigration. There is also a promise to make funding available via UK Research and Innovation for Horizon 2020 project applications that have been submitted but not finally approved at the point of departure from the EU

The sector has hardly been backwards in making suggestions along these lines. Universities UK, the sector representative body, has been campaigning on both issues since before the referendum. Quite what needs to be done in terms of consultation regarding either announcement is unclear.

You’ll likewise look in vain for dates in any of the surrounding publicity. Arguably these are things that need to be decided quickly, but a meaningful consultation (if we take the press release at face value) needs a “proportionate amount of time” according to the government’s own guidelines.

Let’s talk about visas

Suggested “options” to be discussed include:

  • abolishing the cap on numbers under the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visas
  • expanding the pool of UK research institutes and universities able to endorse candidates
  • creating criteria that confer automatic endorsement, subject to immigration checks
  • ensuring dependents have full access to the labour market
  • removing the need to hold an offer of employment before arriving
  • accelerated path to settlement

Sounds great – but that’s only if you don’t know your visas.

Applying only to those living outside the EEA and Switzerland, eligibility for the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa is currently capped at 2,000 people a year, and requires endorsement by one of five “designated competent bodies”: The Royal Society, The Royal Academy of Engineering, The British Academy, Tech Nation, and Arts Council England. The latter can bring in other agencies to review applications in particular fields: The British Fashion Council, the Royal Institute of British Architects, and the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television. No universities or research institutes are able to endorse candidates.

Importantly, you don’t need to hold an offer of employment under this route. However holding a job offer from a UK university or research institute can accelerate the process. It is fairly relaxed in terms of what you do when you get to the UK – as the guidance says:

We recognise that such talented individuals should have few restrictions on their economic activity once here. If you qualify, the route allows you to work and change employers, or to be self-employed, without the need for further authorisation or to be sponsored for employment in a specific post.

The two-stage process currently takes eight weeks in most cases, but senior academics and senior researchers can sometimes get a faster decision. The endorsement stage costs £456, the visa stage costs £152 (in most cases) for you and £608 for each dependent. If accepted via this scheme you can remain in the UK for up to five years and four months, at which point you would be eligible for settlement (earlier for those not on the “exceptional promise” part of the system, aimed at early career researchers). All immigrants to the UK need to pay a healthcare surcharge, and have no access to benefits other than those linked to national insurance.

It is currently possible for family members and dependents of those with a Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa to enter the UK. There is no maintenance requirement under this route, and the only restrictions to labour market access as far as the official guidance goes involves not being able to work as a sports coach or trainee doctor/dentist.

It all ends in tiers

Of course, very few academics enter the UK on this visa – it’s very much for the elite, as it were. For mere mortals the standard Tier 2 (General) visa would be the way to go – you need a firm offer of a skilled job from a licensed sponsor rather than an endorsement from a royal society. It’s £610 for you and each of your dependents for three years, more than three years takes it up to £1,200. This is all excluding the annual healthcare surcharge, and for an extra £800 each you can speed up the standard application process (from the US, for example, this is generally less than 15 days). You also need access to £945 to support yourself

You’d need to re-apply for a visa if you changed job while in the UK. The other big shift at Tier 2 concerns family members. Each member needs £630 to support themselves, unless you have an “a-rated” sponsor. Again, family members are eligible to work in any job (other than the strange exceptions above) their age and education qualifies them to do – though if they want to get their own Tier 2 Visa they need to apply from outside the UK.

So what does this mean?

Nearly 6,500 staff from overseas joined the UK academic workforce in 2017/18 – this figure includes EU and non-EU backgrounds . Looking just at non-EU staff, we see 27,625 currently employed with an academic contract plus 8,220 on other kinds of contract. There are 37,225 EU academic staff from outside the UK, and 13,515 staff on other kinds of contract.

The Tier 1 route applies to only a few of these people, and in the increasingly likely event of no deal it would apply to few of those joining the sector from the EU too.

The big changes that we need would need to be around sponsoring applicants to roles through Tier 2. Salary is one consideration – lower paid roles often don’t generate enough points in the UK’s points based immigration system. And the sheer difficulty of managing the process, from an employer and prospective employee point of view, urgently needs to be addressed.

The suggestion of changes to Tier 1 is to be welcomed, but there’s so much more to do if the UK is really going to become genuinely welcoming to researchers and others who have so much to contribute to our higher education system.

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