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Student and staff visa status at risk from coronavirus travel

Restrictions on student movement to limit time outside UK should be removed, say academics

Academics are urging the Home Office to relax visa rules that restrict the amount of time students and staff can spend outside the UK each year because of the travel restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some visas require people to show that they have been “continually resident” in the UK over a five year period before they can apply for indefinite leave to remain. Widespread travel restrictions, coupled with the need for many people to self-isolate, mean that those who are currently overseas may not be able to return for some time.

Meanwhile, international students who are considering returning to their home countries while lectures are cancelled, or because they are concerned about the health of family members, might be discouraged from doing so because they may not be able to return until after their visas expire.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, said “it would be wise” to remove the travel restrictions imposed on exiting visa holders.

“This crisis may run for 6 months or more given that the UK has moved very slowly to test and limit Covid-19…so the UK will be unsafe to return to for a long time to come. The way the UK handles its international student population at this time will have a major bearing on its global [international student] market share in 2021 and future years.”

David Hitchcock, senior lecturer in early modern history at Canterbury Christ Church University, is one of a group of academics to set up an open letter urging universities to ensure they are supporting migrant staff and students as best they can. Among their suggested actions for universities is that they pressure ministers to suspend the 180-days rule of absence.

It also calls on universities to consult with international students about their capacity to return home, taking into account their ability to access health care within their home countries; and put in place financial support for students and staff who want to go home but are struggling financially,

“International students…contribute enormously to our intellectual, cultural, and economic life regardless of how long their programme lasts, or how long they remain in the country thereafter,” the open letter, which has been signed by almost 500 people, says. “They deserve protection and care from the universities they have chosen to study at, live in, and often work for.”

Universities are issuing guidance on the potential impact of travel restrictions on student visas. An internal email sent to staff at Lancaster University by the registry office immigration team, seen by Research Professional News, outlines some of the implications.

“Where a [postgraduate research student] wishes to leave the UK and write up from home to complete their degree, for an indefinite period of time and only returning only for their Viva, we would report this to the Home Office and their visa will be curtailed,” it states. “The student can then apply for a short-term study visa for the times they are required to re-enter the UK as part of their studies."

Students on postgraduate-taught programmes who wish to study their dissertation from home, and are not returning to the UK prior to the completion date of the programme, would also “be reported to the Home Office and their visa will be curtailed”, the letter says.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We are continually reviewing the situation to consider what more can be done to support people whose immigration status has been affected by the coronavirus, and there is a dedicated point of contact for those who want to discuss their individual circumstances.”

A helpline is open for those who are concerned about their visa status. Further details here