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UK R&D sector voices concern over planned visa fee hike

 Image: Ascannio, via Shutterstock

Policy experts warn increase to immigration health surcharge could harm recruitment

Plans to increase visa application fees risk making the UK unattractive to the brightest and best people from overseas, the R&D sector has warned.

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak announced the hike last week to help cover the cost of a public sector wage increase.

Under the plans, the immigration health surcharge for adults would increase from £624 to £1,035, while the discounted rate for students, their dependents, those on youth mobility schemes and under-18s would increase from £470 to £776.

Several figures in the R&D sector reacted with indignation to the plans, which they warned would have a negative impact on the UK’s ability to attract foreign talent.

Ben Moore, head of policy (international) at the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, told Research Professional News: “The global market for international students and researchers is highly competitive and any significant increase in fees will have an impact on recruitment. Such a move would put the UK’s attractiveness to global talent at risk, and hamper efforts universities have been making to diversify international recruitment.”

He added that it was “more important than ever that the government works with the sector on creative solutions to protect our status as a top destination for students and researchers from around the world”.

Daniel Rathbone, deputy executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, echoed Moore’s concerns. “These are very large increases in fees. Visa costs for scientists and researchers to come to the UK are already much more expensive than other comparable countries,” he said.

“By making it even more expensive, the government risks making the UK unattractive to the brightest and best people from overseas, particularly at a time of continued uncertainty over Horizon Europe association.”

UK association to the EU’s Horizon Europe R&D programme has been on hold for over two years due to a dispute over trade in Northern Ireland, leaving successful UK applicants unable to directly win funding from the bloc.

‘Unattractive destination for young scientists’

Nick Talbot, executive director of The Sainsbury Laboratory, a research institute based in Norwich that carries out biological research and technology development on plants, said the rise risked making the UK “a very unattractive destination for young scientists seeking to work in our universities and research institutes”.

Already, he added, “it is becoming much harder to attract top scientific talent to come to the UK because of the obstacles being built by government”.

“We now receive far fewer applications for scientific positions from EU countries, for example, than before 2016, and the new increases will make the situation even worse.”

Martin Smith, head of the Wellcome Trust’s Policy Lab, said on Twitter that the UK’s plans to “massively” increase visa costs would mean that a researcher looking at a five-year Global Talent Visa, together with their partner and two children, would need to find £20,900, up from the current £13,400. “All up front. A big ask,” he added.

He told Research Professional News: “There’s a competitive international market for researchers. A huge increase in the up-front cost of visas clearly undermines the government’s science superpower strategy since it compromises the attractiveness of the UK to international talent. If there’s no agreement on Horizon Europe either, then the UK becomes a very hard sell for a researcher weighing up how best to continue their career.

“Trying to raise more money from researcher visa fees is economically self-defeating—it comes directly at the expense of supporting a vibrant life sciences sector and the economic and health benefits that would bring.”

A Home Office spokesperson told Research Professional News: “It is right and fair to increase the immigration health surcharge and visa application fees so we can fund vital public services and allow wider funding to contribute to public sector pay.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe and in Research Fortnight