Existing UK immigration rules can support foreign-born researcher movement after Brexit, but the attractiveness of the UK research environment may still keep the best and brightest away, says Erica Brockmeier
Whether you’re relocating around the block, across town, or to a completely new city, moving is not a trivial task. For many PhD students and early career researchers, moving to a new research group can play a key role in professional development. It’s a way to gain new perspectives for your research, expand your professional network, and to work in a prestigious or well-known group in your field. Sometimes the best move for your career isn’t just across towns or cities, but is one that involves moving away from your home country, either temporarily or permanently.
Limitations to researcher mobility are one of many reasons why scientists have voiced their concerns with the populist movements in the US and the UK. In the wake of a hard Brexit and knowing that control over immigration will be prioritized over access to the single market, young scientists from the EEA and the UK are unsure what opportunities will be available for them after changes to their freedom of movement in a post-Brexit Europe.
The UK currently has a net inflow of academic staff, with 30% of UK academic staff made up of non-UK, foreign-born citizens. Twenty per cent of UK academic staff are non-UK EU citizens, and groups including Scientists for EU are concerned that a hard Brexit could damage the UK’s academic integrity. The other 10% of foreign-born academic staff primarily come from the USA, China, India, Australia and Canada, countries with which the UK has no freedom of immigration agreements. Given the large number of researchers originally from outside the EU who live and work in the UK, is researcher mobility still a significant concern for scientists post-Brexit?
Working in the UK
Under current UK immigration regulations, non-EEA researchers are able to work in the UK on a Tier 2 visa. These types of visas require a job offer from your sponsoring institution, such as a university or a research institute, a minimum salary level for your job, and proof of your English language abilities (unless you are a resident of a country whose first language is English or you earned your degree in the UK). In some cases you must also demonstrate that you have enough money in your savings (usually up to £945) to meet UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) maintenance requirements.
Whilst the application process is complicated, current UK immigration policies do reflect the country’s need to bring in the skilled workers it needs, providing exemptions in advertising for and hiring researchers. For PhD-level positions such as post-docs and lecturers, UKVI guidance states that “Employers may recruit the most suitable person for the job not necessarily the most suitable person from the resident labour force.”
Even though there are considerations for hiring foreign-born researchers for PhD-level positions, the costs of a UK visa application are still high. Under current UKVI rules, foreign-born researchers are required to take UKVI-approved English tests (up to 150 GBP) and pay application fees to secure any Tier 2 support for themselves as well as their dependent families. The UK Visa application fee is £575 per person, which does not include NHS fees (£200 per person per year), biometrics (another £19.20), or priority processing (up to an extra £500 per person for a faster decision on your application). All added up, relocating a family of four could cost over £4,000 for a two-year contract.
Other countries in the EU also have rules that allow for highly skilled, PhD-level researchers to immigrate but at reduced application costs. Germany has a scientific visa which also requires a host institution but has no language requirements or maintenance costs, and no application fee. Researchers heading to Sweden can apply for a visiting research residence permit, only requiring an approval from the Swedish research council, no language requirements, and less than £100 in application fees.
In Ireland, an offer for a research position at an accredited institution enables you to apply for a fast-track researcher visa, and some countries are exempt from visa fees entirely. Ireland also recently extended the amount of time that non-EEA students can remain in Ireland after their studies — now graduates looking for jobs have two years to do so while in the UK students only have four months to find another sponsor.
Why do researchers move?
While a hard Brexit will limit the freedom of movement to and from the EU, it is unlikely that immigration of foreign-born researchers will be completely halted. UK researchers who wish to live and work in the EU will be able to find the means to do so. But, with other attractive options elsewhere, the bureaucratic and financial overheads may prove to be off-putting. Combined with the uncertainties of what research funding opportunities will look like in a post-Brexit UK, will foreign-born researchers look for better career opportunities elsewhere?
In a 2011 survey published by Nature Biotechnology, , researchers working in 16 countries answered questions related to their motivations for emigrating as well as their plans for returning to their home countries. Researchers indicated that the “opportunity to improve my future career prospects,” “outstanding faculty, colleagues, or research team,” and “excellence/prestige of the foreign institution in my area of research” as the three most important reasons for seeking employment outside of their home country.
A more recent survey of researchers by the market research firm YouGov showed 90% of respondents thought that Brexit would have a negative impact of the UK higher education sector, and 42% have already considered leaving. Given that the University of Cambridge informed MPs on the education select committee that it has already seen a 17% decrease in EU applicants after Brexit, talented EU students and researchers already seem to be choosing other institutions over the UK because of reduced attractiveness and increased uncertainty about the future of the UK research environment.
Foreign-born researchers in a post-Brexit UK
Moving to a new country is a way for early career researchers to gain fresh cultural and scientific perspectives. With many researchers seeking employment in institutions in order to access competitive funding schemes or to be a part of an inclusive and world-renowned group or institution, the real costs of Brexit will include a decreased attractiveness of UK universities and research institutes.
Many EU academics have attempted to take preliminary actions to ensure their right to remain in the UK post-Brexit by applying for permanent residency. But with Brexit still not formally enacted, the LSE reported that UK residency applications put forth by EU citizens are being refused. While The Guardian reports that there may be some hope in protecting current EU resident’s rights to remain, in the meantime the uncertainty surrounding Brexit will likely drive many talented researchers away. The visa rules which enable foreign-born talent to live and work in the UK may become less relevant if the opportunities that attracted the best and brightest to the UK are no longer present.
Erica Brockmeier is a post-doc in computational toxicology at the University of Liverpool. She is also the lead writer of Science with Style, a weekly professional development blog for PhD students and early career researchers. You can follow her story of transitioning towards a career in science writing at @EKBrockmeier.