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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