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Charity seeks dedicated UK visa route for at-risk researchers

Flexibilities introduced for Ukrainians could be blueprint for other crises, says Council for At-Risk Academics

The UK government has been urged to create new visa routes for at-risk academics fleeing crises, amid concerns that an imminent rise in visa costs could limit the support provided to those seeking refuge.

The Council for At-Risk Academics has said flexibilities introduced by the Home Office allowed record numbers of Ukrainian researchers to arrive in the UK since the outbreak of war there and that these could be a blueprint for responding to future crises.

The Homes for Ukraine scheme, which enabled people and organisations to sponsor those fleeing the Russian invasion, “helped massively”, Cara deputy director Zeid Al Bayaty told Research Professional News.

“I can safely say that without that Ukraine-designated visa scheme, we wouldn’t have been able to help the 220 Ukrainian academics [that] we were able to so fast,” he said.

The government-funded Researchers at Risk programme for Ukraine, which is run by Cara and the British Academy, launched in 2022 and was backed with nearly £13 million of public money.

Cara and MPs have called for the scheme to be extended and opened to academics in other countries now that the funding has been fully used.

Fee rise

Increases in immigration fees, announced by prime minister Rishi Sunak in July, are due to kick in on 4 October. The changes will substantially increase the immigration health surcharge—which the UK’s research sector has warned will deter foreign researchers.

Al Bayaty said the hike in costs was a concern for Cara and could potentially mean the organisation would not be able to fund as many fellows. “It will make it more difficult for us,” he said.

He added that standard visa routes come with complexities as well as costs, including requirements for a tuberculosis test—something that was waived under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. “There was just generally more flexibility,” Al Bayaty said.

Acting fast

“In our line of work, when something like Ukraine happens, or Afghanistan, or other crises, the really important thing is to act as fast as possible,” he said, adding: “For that, you need funding, of course, but also you need the immigration side to work.

“We hope that the Home Office and the UK government would be willing and ready to create new visa routes for at-risk academics if a new crisis in the future happened, and show the same flexibility they showed with regards to Ukrainians in relation to the Researchers at Risk programme.”

In a report published in August, vice-chancellors group Universities UK also said that the Homes for Ukraine programme made the visa process “both faster and simpler in comparison to other crises”, but that the changes “were considered not to have gone far enough”.

“The leniencies made in response to Ukraine may even be a model to allow for future flexibility,” UUK said.

A spokesperson for UUK International told Research Professional News: “The UK’s reputation as an attractive and safe destination for international talent is severely tested by the increasing costs of immigration. It is vital that we have an immigration and visa system which can support international researchers from all backgrounds and at all stages of their careers, including those impacted by global crises.”

Research Professional News has approached the Home Office for comment.