Researchers face ‘staggering’ visa costs and bureaucracy

Universities UK has warned the Home Office that employers will struggle to increase the number of researchers and technicians to the numbers needed to support state R&D targets

Visa fees among the highest in the world are “just one” immigration barrier that Universities UK (UUK) says frustrates the progress of the British research and development (R&D) sector.

In a report lodged with the Home Office, UUK referred to lower visa fees as one “simple” step the government could take that “could make a massive difference” to the competitiveness of UK job offers. The Home Office recently upped the cost of visas.

The total cost of a five-year visa through the Skilled Worker Route for an individual, their spouse and two children is £15,880, UUK estimates – a sum described as “staggering” and likely to put off mid-career researchers. The annual £624-per-person immigration health surcharge is another disincentive highlighted by UUK.

The government seeks to increase R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. Its research suggests that to support the sector expansion that funding will both create and demand, the UK must boost the numbers of researchers and technicians by 150,000. Achieving this figure is hampered by high fees and “immigration bureaucracy”, UUK warned.

The UUK report urges the Home Office to review rules on families: namely, the “sole responsibility” test, which it says is not inclusive of single-parent families, and dependency costs that create an “upfront financial burden” for large families.

Universities are also concerned about retaining international researchers. Rules for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) mean researchers can apply after three years, but their dependents can only apply after five. Gaining ILR requires an annual salary of at least £33,000 and heaps up-front costs of £2,389 on applicants.

The report highlights anecdotal problems with Home Office bureaucracy, including a researcher repaying fees twice to lodge the same paperwork for new scheme applications after a visa rejection. Another visa applicant declined a job offer in the UK – on a grant from a deputy vice-chancellor – because the visa costs amounted to ten times his annual salary in Turkey.

UUK wants the Home Office to conduct “a benchmarking exercise” to review UK visa global competitiveness and allow visa applicants to spread costs of the health surcharge throughout a visa stay.

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said: “The government has taken some welcome steps recently to make the UK more attractive to international research talent.

“We think they can go even further, and that doing so will contribute to making the UK one of the most exciting places in the world to pursue a research career.

“Simple steps to ease the financial and bureaucratic burden for applicants could make a massive difference to individual decision making, and help make the UK a magnet for talent.”

Read more: Universities UK appoints Vivienne Stern chief executive

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