Visas for researchers are too expensive – and it’s getting worse

The cost to a researcher of getting a UK visa has just gone up again. For Philip Lewis, this runs counter to the country’s supposed science superpower ambitions

Philip Lewis is Head of International at the British Academy

This autumn has seen the Home Office implement a series of fee increases for many visas required to enter the UK.

This includes the Global Talent visa for leaders in academia and research, arts and culture, and digital technology, for which the British Academy acts as an endorsing body. Visas like these are vital for bringing the brightest and most talented researchers around the world to the UK and play a key role in safeguarding the health of the UK’s world-leading SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts for People and the Economy) disciplines.

Charge and surcharge

As is the case across many visa categories, there has been a 15 per cent increase in the fees related to the Global Talent visa (£623 to £716 per person). In addition, the Immigration Health Surcharge will be increased at an as-yet-unknown date by 66 per cent (£624 to £1,035 a year. for adults, and £470 to £776 for each child).

For a researcher and their partner with two children, this would amount to a total cost of £20,974 for the right to live and work in the UK for five years – all of which must be paid upfront.

None of this will help the UK in its mission to become a world leader in science and research. The UK’s Science and Technology Framework sets a target of having “established comparative advantage in attracting international talent to the UK” by 2030 and the Government itself has said that it estimates that 380,000 additional researchers will be needed by 2027 – and that “overseas talent will be a very big piece of that.”

Increasing visa costs so substantially will not help achieve these goals. At the Conservative Party conference last week science minister George Freeman put it even more starkly, saying the UK will not become a science and research superpower “behind a visa wall.”

The increase rationale

So, what lies behind the increase in visa costs? The Home Office has set out the rationale behind the decision here – and it is worth looking at some of the arguments in more detail.

The Home Office argues that the Global Talent visa is more expensive because it has fewer restrictions compared to other countries’ visas. Yet it is not clear why that should make the visa more expensive. The processing of the visa does not change depending on the restrictions – or lack of restrictions – which it imposes on the person holding it. Besides, the UK has a visa that does carry restrictions: the Skilled Worker visa, which many researchers and technicians use to come to the UK. This visa is usually more expensive than the Global Talent visa, so a more accurate comparison with those other countries would place the UK in an even worse light.

The Home Office also says that it is not profiting from these fees and the money is not used to fund other parts of government. This comment must refer to the visa fee increases and not the increase in the Immigration Health Surcharge, which is put towards the NHS. Even so, it does not explain why the UK’s fees are so expensive compared to other countries or why they must be paid upfront.

During the House of Commons debate on public sector pay, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said the increases “will help to cover more of the cost of the migration and border system, allowing the Home Secretary to divert more funding to police forces to help fund the pay rise for the police.”

Perhaps it is possible to maintain that the increase is not to be used elsewhere but it is doubtful that anyone in the R&D sector will see it that way – and after all, these are the people who we are trying to retain, attract and convince. Even if you simply take the increases set out by the Home Office, the increase in the visa fee that is being implemented is more than the increase for the estimated unit cost of processing the Global Talent visa.

Political messaging

The Home Office claims that the increase in the Immigration Health Surcharge is required to ensure that international researchers and innovators contribute to the NHS (it is noted that other countries require private health insurance, hence the need for the surcharge). However, the UK has the NHS which is funded through general taxation and national insurance contributions, which researchers also pay in full. The fact that we have the NHS and other countries have private health insurance is therefore not a justification for levying further money from researchers.

This is a clear example of political messaging rubbing up starkly with lived reality. After all, the UK’s visas are some of the most expensive in the world – far from establishing the “comparative advantage” described in the Science and Technology Framework, they are contributing to the development of a comparative disadvantage when it comes to retaining and attracting researchers. This will reduce the effectiveness of the UK’s R&D sector and our reputation overseas, which will in turn make us less competitive globally.

If the UK wishes to attract and retain researchers, then visa fees need to be reduced and not increased so that we are in line with comparator countries elsewhere. That is the way to be competitive. In addition, researchers should not be double charged (as they are now) through paying the Immigration Health Surcharge – the requirement to pay this should be removed. Finally, the cost of a visa should be inclusive of the applicant and their dependents rather than being calculated per person and thus penalising those with partners, children and other dependents.

Other nations have managed to devise competitive visa systems that do not generate so much expense. The UK can – and must – do the same if it is to compete globally and become the science and research superpower we all want it to be.

One response to “Visas for researchers are too expensive – and it’s getting worse

  1. Not to mention the UKVCAS appointment, in case you need to provide biometric data, which costs usually some £150 or £250 per person.

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