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UK govt announces fast track visa plan for top researchers

A shake-up of visa regulations to attract more top scientists is on the cards for the UK, with the prime minister announcing he has instructed the Home Office and BEIS to work on a fast-track visa route to be launched later this year.

Witnesses previously told a Lords committee that Brexit was discouraging EU students and researchers to enrol in the UK. Photo: Pixabay

Association with Horizon Europe and post-study work provision for international graduates remain in the wish list

The new fast-track route will be designed to attract “elite researchers and specialists in the fields of science, engineering and technology, from maths Olympiads at the very start of their careers to the winners of internationally recognised prizes and fellowships,” the government statement reads.

“I want the UK to continue to be a global science superpower, and when we leave the EU we will support science and research and ensure that, far from losing out, the scientific community has a huge opportunity to develop and export our innovation around the world,” PM Boris Johnson said.

“We estimate these grants could be worth around £600 million to UK researchers”

The government has set a number options on the table to be discussed with institutions and universities.

These include abolishing the cap on the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa; expanding the pool of UK research institutes and universities able to endorse candidates; removing the requirement to hold an employment offer before arrival; and an accelerated path to settlement and full access to the job market for dependants.

In addition to a more favourable visa regime for researchers, the government also pledged to provide additional funding for researchers who have sought EU funding before the UK leaves the EU, including schemes delivered by the European Research Council.

If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, the government will automatically review applications pending approval for Horizon 2020, with successful applications provided with funding, the statement read.

UUKi director Vivienne Stern welcomed the announcement and said she was looking forward to working with the government on the detail to ensure the UK remains as attractive as possible to international talent.

She also welcomed the commitment to complete the evaluation of ERC funding application submitted before Brexit.

“This is something which Universities UK has been urging government to do as a priority and will ensure that outstanding proposals which might otherwise have fallen by the wayside receive funding,” she said.

“We estimate these grants could be worth around £600 million to UK researchers.”

Commenting on the announcement, senior policy analyst at the Russell Group Hollie Chandler welcomed the proposed fast-track visa route and said the organisation will seek to ensure it supports research in all disciplines and career stages.

“We look forward to working with ministers on the design of this new route to ensure it supports research in all disciplines, talent at all career stages, and the full range of roles that are needed for an effective research environment, including lecturers, professors, early career researchers and technical staff,” she said.

While welcoming the announcement, Ruth Arnold, consultant, former director of public affairs at the University of Sheffield and co-founder of the #Weareinternational campaign, told The PIE that the plan needs a “far wider” approach to cater for all stages of the recruitment pipeline.

“Scientists don’t typically arrive in the UK at the peak of their career, walk into a lab and win a Nobel prize. They often come first as students, or work as part of a group as early career researchers. Many have careers which include periods in other EU countries and beyond. It’s a whole package, even though I’m very glad there are signs of change,” she said.

“Scientists don’t typically arrive in the UK at the peak of their career, walk into a lab and win a Nobel prize”

“As we approach Brexit though, deal or not, we urgently need the kind of cross-Department International Education Strategy which supports the whole academic ecosystem to have the green light to go faster and further.

“From post study work to removing visa charges, we need urgent change to send the strongest signal to those considering pursuing study and research in the UK.”

Association with Horizon Europe and post-study work provision for international graduates remain on the wish list, with the Russell Group pointing out that the announcement is a “great start but not the ceiling” of its ambition for the UK, while Stern tweeted a gentle reminder that the sector is awaiting an announcement on the proposed reinstatement of the two-year PSW visa.

Favourable visa conditions to attract and retain international talent was one of the priorities highlighted in a report of the House of Lords Science and Technology select committee on science research funding published earlier this week.

The report found three areas the sector could find challenges in after Brexit: funding, recruitment and retention of researchers, and maintaining collaboration with European networks.

The report recommended that post-Brexit regulations “do not hinder” the ability of the UK to recruit and retain international talent and called on the government to also consider amending immigration laws relating to families of staff.

According to a report by the Royal Society, EU nationals, who don’t need a visa under free movement rules but will be subject to immigration regulations after the UK leaves the EU, made up 16% of the research workforce in UK universities in 2014/15.

Some witnesses to the Lords inquiry reported that the prospect of Brexit was already discouraging EU students and researchers to enrol or take up opportunities in the country’s universities.

Concerns that the minimum salary threshold for skilled workers of £30,000 could have implications for research technicians were also highlighted by the witnesses.

Beyond urging the government to reassure the sector by seeking full association with Horizon Europe, the report pointed out that the government’s contribution to UK research will need to be higher than it is now to fully match current levels of funding.

“As the UK is a net beneficiary of EU research funding this amount will be greater than the amount the UK currently contributes to the EU research pot,” the report warned.

 

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