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International staff are canaries in the coal mine

Image: Martin Deutsch [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr 

Universities’ treatment of non-EU academics raises worries for the situation post-Brexit, says Pavel Iosad.

UK universities have made numerous pronouncements on the disruptive potential of Brexit. Research funding, student recruitment and cross-border collaborations have all been discussed, but the most immediate and personal threat is to staff from the rest of the European Union and European Economic Area, who may find themselves having to navigate the murky waters of the UK immigration system.

Much remains unknown about the post-Brexit world. But for immigration, the December 2018 white paper provided a reasonably clear steer: the system is likely to reproduce most features of the current regime.

Over a tenth of UK academic staff are already subject to this system. They, along with many non-academic staff in universities, have faced the full force of the Home Office’s immigration policy.

This includes salary thresholds, which effectively shut non-EU citizens out of most professional services jobs. It also includes massive fee increases: between 2012 and 2018, the cost of a Tier 2 visa for skilled workers went from £400 to more than £1,000 per application, not including the obligatory immigration health surcharge, while the settlement fee for dependants almost quintupled, from £486 to £2,389. Added to this are restrictions on time overseas and requirements on reporting one’s whereabouts to employers.

Although none of these measures are really new, the prospect of EU and EEA staff falling into the system seems to have got university leaders’ attention. The vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK has launched the Brightest Minds campaign to highlight the contribution of EU staff to British academia. There has been lobbying for a relaxation of salary thresholds. Individual universities issue Brexit updates with heartfelt reassurances of how valued international colleagues are.

However, if the experience of current staff from outside the EU or EEA is any guide to universities’ willingness to put their money where their mouths are, the picture looks less rosy.

All too often, both rank-and-file colleagues and university leadership seem unaware of the working conditions of non-EU staff. In the absence of clear guidance from the Home Office, for example, policies on issues such as monitoring of whereabouts vary wildly within and across universities, from benign indifference to detailed weekly reporting.

Many international staff bear the financial burden of application fees themselves, as reimbursement policies are inconsistent and often incomplete. A handful of institutions pay the full cost of immigration applications, from initial permit to settlement. Others cover only part of the costs—refusing to class the health surcharge as an immigration fee, for example—or deduct significant amounts in tax, or provide interest-free loans that are effectively pay cuts. The problem is exacerbated for staff with dependants.

When reimbursements are offered, they often focus on recruitment pathways such as Tier 2 visas. Retention measures, such as the even costlier but unavoidable settlement applications, fall by the wayside.

All this suggests that universities are ill-prepared for large numbers of staff to fall into the new (old) dispensation. Many human resources departments, especially in institutions with a small proportion of non-EEA workers, already struggle to support recruitment, management and retention of international staff—will they be able to scale up?

In the absence of public engagement from sector bodies, individual universities are often reticent to put their heads above the parapet. They seem to be waiting to see what others do.

In the meantime, as the Home Office tightens the screw, a two-tier international workforce is created. Some international colleagues are promised reimbursement of £65 settled status fees; others find themselves thousands of pounds out of pocket.

None of this is good for the morale of current staff or for the UK’s reputation as a destination for the best and brightest. As other countries—many with much lower immigration fees and less onerous conditions—compete for staff and students, UK university leadership has been asleep at the wheel.

Most of the rules now decried as too restrictive are not new, but university leaders had failed to respond coherently to deteriorating conditions, either through lobbying or support for affected staff, until it was too late. Most of all, at a time when openness and international connections are existential issues for higher education, the wobbly edifice behind the shiny facade of the #WeAreInternational campaign is a source of worry.

Should current and future international staff, from within and beyond the EU, trust universities’ rhetoric of support and commitment, or should they look to what has been happening in practice? It is time for universities to take notice.

Pavel Iosad is a lecturer in the department of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight