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Non-EU scholars struggling with the UK’s visa policy

Academics describe the complex, arbitrary bureaucracy, emotional turmoil and career limbo wrought by Britain’s policies

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Despite having worked as a teaching fellow here and having a job offer and a British wife, the UKBA wants me out

When I came to the UK from Canada in 2009 to study for a geography PhD at the University of Leicester, I saw it as the beginning of a new life here. I had been married to a UK citizen since 2004 – my wife is currently completing her PhD at the University of Warwick – and I dreamed of a future working in British higher education, which has such a high reputation internationally.

Until recently, things had been going extremely well. As expected, my supervisors at Leicester were excellent and, after finishing my (self-funded) PhD in late 2012, I proudly took up my first full-time academic job as a teaching fellow in the same department.

In addition to lecturing and marking, I – like many young academics on temporary contracts – spent a great deal of time applying for my next job. Shortly before my contract expired in July 2013, I applied for a lectureship at the University of Brighton; after much preparation and a very intense interview process, I was offered the job. Honestly, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

I have also built a good life in a Leicester community that I care about. Every morning I walk my dog in Victoria Park; when I can, I take the train to visit relatives and friends in Watford, York or elsewhere. But all this is about to change because of the curious policies of the UK Border Agency.

In August, Brighton informed me that, in accordance with UK policy on hiring foreigners, it was obliged to readvertise my position (any hiring of a non-European Union worker requires a minimum length of time advertised and a minimum number of EU candidates interviewed). After a long, unpaid wait, I was informed in mid-September that I was still the preferred candidate. So I began working with Brighton staff to prepare for the start of the academic year while also starting on another long and expensive work visa application: my third in nine months.

The application was completed, submitted and paid for, and I arranged an appointment for the collection of my biometric data (which must be made from outside the country) to be done near my family home in Toronto. With a packed bag and plane ticket in hand, I headed to London for a family funeral the day before my flight.

That evening – three weeks after the start of term – I received an email from Brighton stating that, because of the UKBA’s rules, I would not be granted a work visa. Because I had already had a work visa in the past 12 months, I was ineligible to apply again until mid-July 2014. Or to put it a different way, I hadn’t been unemployed long enough to be employed.

When I tell people that the UKBA would not allow me to apply for a visa even though I had been offered a job, they cannot believe it. I, however, think it’s all too predictable. I have been feeling the increasing weight of the UKBA on my back since I first began hearing – almost as soon as I arrived – that international students were to be subject to additional monitoring. This, of course, has been manifested in various ways, most chillingly in the plans by the universities of Ulster and Sunderland to subject international students to biometric fingerprinting.

At the same time, post-study work visas have been abolished, and universities have been tacitly discouraged from hiring foreign academics – even those trained in the UK – through the imposition of a series of arcane challenges such as those I experienced regarding my non-EU citizenship. And when that does not work – when a “foreigner” like me manages to provide exactly what a department needs in a teacher or a lecturer – it turns out that the bureaucracy may still slam the door shut. The 12-month “cooling-off” period, as it is called, is essentially a bar to foreign early career academics like me ever establishing themselves in the UK.

The problem is exacerbated by the neo-liberal reformism that is forcing universities to behave like large corporations. Year-long positions have been replaced by nine- or 10-month contracts such as the one I was on at Leicester, and no university will hire someone months early simply to avoid the UKBA pitfalls created by a gap in employment.

So, despite all my connections to the UK, despite all the money I have put into the economy without taking a penny of public funds, I must now leave the country. My career has been set back and, drowning in debt, I will return to my parents’ home, the home I moved away from in 1999, while my wife remains here to complete her degree and her viva voce. The break-up of our family will, of course, put a great deal of financial and emotional strain on us both.

There is no appeals process against the UKBA’s decision, and Brighton has already offered the lectureship to someone else. I have no hope of regaining it. But Britons deserve to know that their universities are being undermined, their students sold short, and people’s lives disrupted by a combination of an immigration crackdown and a neoliberal management agenda that flies in the face of freedom and academic integrity.

Adam Barker was a teaching fellow at the University of Leicester.

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Readers' comments (9)

  • Hmmm.... And why has you decided that we can't do without UK and its science? We lived without you for long and we were happy and had all. But then we probably went mad: we hammered into our heads that we want to go to UK and your science is best in the world.

    What a nonsense! Are you the best in the world? You, who doesn't even fly to Space?.. Oh, yes, you're "the best", because all companies, which calculate universities' ranks, are british... :P

    Are you "culture"?... Nobel laureate, which sank into obscurantism and charlatanism and doesn't remember even his own investigations.... London professor, which never read Tolstoy (what Tolstoy! he never read even Dickens and Shakespear, speaking nothing about modern UK writers) and watchs only detectives on TV... British minister of education, which doesn't know even Newton's laws. Is this your "intellectual men"?

    I was never so bored as talking with your academics. No interesting subject. No clever opinion. It seems the only theme, which interesting for you, is a equal marriage (only for gays!) and dyslexia in schools (or are all your kids dyslexic?).

    And what about your science? Heh!.... If rich scoundrels and idiots hold the state power in your world, then any scientific investigations can bring only an evil: wars, rising inequality, degradation of culture... :(

    Basta! We are fed up. We don't want you any more. We want to stay at home.

    We shall live WITHOUT you, "dear UK", and without your "British science".

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  • I'm not very sure where I should start my comment, but I do find the situation a good example of the UKBA gone mad.

    Of course, it is not surprising, when we see marchers carrying banners stating, "Kill the Queen" and "Sharia Law for Everyone" that the UKBA must do something. But this looks like a 'knee-jerk' reaction to me.

    On the other hand (I shall play the Devil's advocate for a moment) the rules for work visas, that you must have read, have always had 12-month periods of legality.

    Then, I notice that the writers have UK partners and I am bound to wonder, why the 'Family' sponsorship has not been attempted (It is not mentioned). As a divorcee, more than once, I would always express caution in recommending marriage, but one writer did say, "someone I consider the love of my life. " Therefore, it seems to me, in that case, that a family sponsorship could be the answer.

    I sincerely, wish you a Happy New Year.

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  • Bernie - The family sponsorship route isn't necessarily any easier. I'm a US citizen, a PhD graduate from the University of Glasgow, and the spouse of a UK citizen. The minimum income threshold (£18,600) was introduced right around the time that a) I finished my doctorate and b) my student visa was about to expire. Our household income was below the required level and I was told in no uncertain terms by UKBA that I would not be allowed to stay in the country. I went to my MSP and spoke to my Westminster MP's assistant about it, and they confirmed that there was nothing anyone could do. On top of it all, I'd actually been extended a kind of tentative job offer at a university in Scotland, albeit for a short contract and still unofficial by the time I found out about the new regulations. Again, this made no impact on my appeals to UKBA, who calculate income based exclusively on the six months prior to the application date. In the end my wife and I decided it was simpler to just pack up and leave, despite her having spent her whole life in Scotland.

    Like the first author, the whole process proved extremely expensive, used up all our savings and took us into debt. We then had to move in with my mother in a small town where we endured months of unemployment. We're now both working in a different part of the US but my academic career has been majorly disrupted.

    And all for what?

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  • Here's what every UK taxpayer needs to know: I and other fortunate scholars have had much of our postgraduate education funded by UK scholarships and UK-based universities -- i.e., with money that has come from British taxpayers.

    I'm sure that, in my case, after roughly £70K in UK scholarships, Canada will thank you all for your sizeable investment in my skills on the day I am sent home.

    Does it make sense that the UK government is apparently not interested in seeking a return on your investment by allowing me to work here, using the training you have paid for, and pay back what I have been given in the form of tax?

    It makes no sense to me -- if it doesn't make any sense to you, I suggest you contact your MP.

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  • For too long British immigration policies were lax, thanks to Labour. British universities exploited this to look global. Using the same argument, they awarded scholarships to those non-EU entrants who were no better academically than their British counterpart. It is time that these laws were tightened up. The new laws are still weaker compared to those in America, Canada and Australia. Hence, stop singling out this country. These new laws make sense to me and hence, I do not want to see my MP.

    I do not see why those in developed countries like USA and Canada should come and study here, when students and others in the rest of the world want to go to those countries to study, do research and work. We have too many of our own graduates and postgraduates who need jobs.

    As for those who post here, if they are good, they should have no problems in finding jobs in their own native countries.

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  • I have found this to resonate especially well with my own experience. I am currently in the final stages of my PhD (about 4 or 5 months from submission), but my visa expired and, with less than a year to go, I was informed that I could not renew my visa (even though after submission I will have another 1-4 months before my viva and possible revisions after that). I am still enrolled at a top London University (part of the Russell Group), but the message I have received since arriving in the UK from the government was to leave. Despite not having completely finished my PhD, I was offered a position as a lecturer at 3 different British schools, only to be informed within a fortnight by each that, due to the UKBA's ever shifting visa policies, they could not offer me a position. My children were born in Britain and my family made strong friendships and professional connections, but from the outset the message was clear 'The British Government would prefer me out of the country.' As it stands now, I will submit in abstentia (I have not received any government funding since the ORS scheme was revamped/abandoned just prior to starting my degree), and need to apply for a student visitor visa to attend my own viva. I hope that there are only minor corrections because I am attempting to time it so that I may attend my own graduation (only 1 student visitor visa may be awarded every 2 years and they only last for a maximum of 6 months).

    To Simon, you seem to not have a full understanding of how academics works, at least in the humanities. The reason someone from the US (like me) might want to study in the UK has to do with who is considered the best in the field. As for me, when I applied, two of the top 5 experts in my field were at the same University in Britain. You study a PhD with the best, and in my specific field, the best were in Britain. As far as being "good" as you put it, this betrays an even stronger ignorance of the academic job market. Those who are offered positions anywhere (in the US or UK or Canada) are already better than "good." The market on the whole is overly glutted. The problem I have experienced in the US is that many hiring committees, surprisingly, have no idea how to place various universities from the UK if they aren't Oxbridge. The trouble is, according to virtually any metric my specific department is ranked higher than Oxford and Cambridge, yet when a single job can produce hundreds upon hundreds of applicants, no one wants to investigate this. Couple that with the fact that the majority of my professional and academic network is in the UK (since that's where I was for most of my PhD), and I have an even harder time in the US (it really is *who* you know, since at this level everyone is an expert). My children (now three) want to know when they can "go home" since most of their friends are all in London, and my friends in London don't understand how their own government can be so unreasonable. Yes the US immigration policies are Draconian, but they seem like a walk in the park on a pleasant Summer's day compared to the UKBA policies. Multiple studies have demonstrated that the more culturally diversified academic staff (and student populations) are, the better students perform. The current UKBA policies are about politics, not about improving anyone's lives.

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  • @George: " the US immigration policies are Draconian, but they seem like a walk in the park on a pleasant Summer's day compared to the UKBA policies."

    Really! I have experienced how draconian US immigration policies are-calling foreigners as "aliens", and treating them really as strange green men from another planet! When you visit an US airport next, just watch how visitors are treated by your immigration officials. My friends tell me the tales of absolute horror when they were subjected to US immigration officials' treatment.
    As for your tale of woe, it is not half as bad as the stories I have heard from my own friends who had had the misfortune to study there. Yes, I am ignorant having spent 40 years in academia in US,UK, Australia and Europe.

    Well, I support the new immigration policies, and as I said it is still weaker compared to those US, Canada and Australia.

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  • I had an impression that the UK immigration rules are somewhat friendly to citizens of Canada, Australia and USA (to some extent). If someone from Canada, a country whom it shares the Head of State with, can be treated in that manner, then there's absolutely no chance for someone from Cambodia, Namibia or Dominican Republic being granted a work permit in UK.

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  • Simon Page writes: "For too long British immigration policies were lax, thanks to Labour. British universities exploited this to look global. Using the same argument, they awarded scholarships to those non-EU entrants who were no better academically than their British counterpart. It is time that these laws were tightened up. The new laws are still weaker compared to those in America, Canada and Australia. Hence, stop singling out this country. These new laws make sense to me and hence, I do not want to see my MP. "

    I agree. I completed my PhD in 1999, in a department that had around 10 PhD students in it, about half of them UK/EU and the others non-EU. During the two years afterwards it took me to find my first academic job, I was interviewed for around a dozen posts, most of which ended up going to Americans or Canadians. During this time, and since, I knew many British graduates who were either unemployed or only able to get short-term bits of zero hours contract teaching here and there.

    I'm sorry, but I simply don't believe that these foreign nationals were signficiantly better teachers and researchers than we were. We'd all been through, and successfully completed, the same PhD programmes, had roughly the same TA-ing experience, etc. etc.. I suspect that the main reason they tended to be hired over us was that universities were anxious to remain attractive to non-EU postgrads paying full fees, and employing a good proportion of them afterwards made for a good recruitment tool. When I was on an appointment panel in 2009 I even heard that argument used by the chair, to justify her preference for a Canadian candidate over three Brits, one of whom was clearly the best qualified for that particular role.

    The bottom line is that universities have less to lose by deterring British people from entering doctoral programmes (and I would advise anyone now not to do so, at least in my area of the humanities, because there is probably no other line of work in existence with such a long period of training and such poor job seecurity and earning prospects), because they pay less. There are now so many unemployed or under-employed PhD graduates out there that in my view it's perfectly reasonable to set the bar very high for recruiting foreign nationals to the few secure academic jobs that do come up at UK HEIs.

    The only issue on which I agree with the criticism of the UKBA is over these cases whereby foreign nationals with substantive family ties to the UK are still deported. I eventually married an American, moved to the US and now work outside academia (and have no intention ever of returning to it). As part of my 'green card' application process, all the US authorities were really interested in establishing was that our marriage was genuine (and checking that we're still together after two years). With that established, they're not interested in anything else. With the proviso that foreign nationals who emigrate to the UK after marrying British citizens should not be entitled to access to the social security system until they've built up a substantial number of years of NI payments (eg. for their first few years in the UK they should have to purchase private health insurance, just as any British citizen moving outside the EU does), I see no reason why the UK should place any other obstacles in their path: this is not in line with standard international practice.

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