Karen Wells, professor of human geography at Birkbeck, University of London, was outraged to be informed that before she could conduct a PhD viva exam at another university she had to submit her passport for Home Office checks.
Wells says this sort of heightened surveillance is part of the same “hostile environment” that has seen academics threatened with deportation and unable to bring their children into the country. In recent months the Guardian has reported on numerous cases in which the Home Office has refused visas to academics working at British universities, or to their families.
The Home Office expects all employers to check that potential employees are not working illegally. It is becoming increasingly common for universities, which seem more nervous than ever of falling foul of the Home Office, to apply this even to one-off activities such as taking a PhD viva, reviewing research or delivering a guest lecture.
Now academics, furious about the Home Office refusing visas to established university staff, are fighting back, with some declining to volunteer their passports for checks for casual work at other universities. Others are lobbying university managers to support migrant researchers by paying their visa and immigration fees, which can run into the tens of thousands.
Wells agreed to submit her passport rather than jeopardising the student’s viva exam, but wrote a formal letter to the university about its big brother tactics. Following this, the institution allowed her to supervise the exam without checking her passport.
She says: “If an academic already works at a university there is no need to check their papers. People in universities are being made to feel either like immigration suspects or immigration police.
“Universities should absolutely resist this. I find it extremely worrying that we have just accepted that it’s our job to monitor international students for the Home Office. I have to report a student for not attending a supervision meeting. I have to authorise and justify PhD students leaving the country to do field work. Now they are monitoring academics too.”
Chris Chambers, an Australian and professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cardiff University, was recently told to send his passport for checks before an unpaid guest lecture at another university. He refused on principle.
“Every time an academic says yes to an inappropriate request like this, they are feeding the beast,” he says. “And where does it all end up? In academics being deported.
“Science is a global pursuit and universities have a lot of people coming through their departments from other countries who might not have a right to work here. Are we seriously saying those people shouldn’t be able to give guest lectures?”
The university’s human resources department responded aggressively, he says, telling him the Home Office could fine them up to £20,000 for failing to make the checks. However, a colleague took his case higher and a senior lawyer at the institution declared that because he was giving the lecture unpaid, the checks were unlawful. The request was dropped.
Chambers says universities are terrified of breaking Home Office rules and being fined, or losing their ability to recruit lucrative international students – as London Metropolitan University did temporarily in 2012. He is calling on senior academics to resist unreasonable Home Office checks.
“I’ve already seen a massive drop in the number of EU nationals who apply for positions here. This country is now seen as unwelcoming to people who aren’t British,” he says. “There is a floating xenophobia in the system that isn’t shared by academics, but is harming the global connectivity of science.”
A lecturer at a modern university, who asked not to be named, says her institution recently warned a departmental administrative assistant that she personally would be responsible for a fine of thousands of pounds if an academic acting as anexternal examiner was paid without a right-to-work check.
“I would like to see universities presenting some resistance as a sector to this profoundly unjust government policy,” she says. “And they should not cascade responsibility for it to individual members of staff.”
Ian Donald, professor of psychological sciences at Liverpool University, was horrified when he was asked by a competitor institution last week to send in his passport for two days’ work reviewing research. “I wrote back saying I was appalled and I wouldn’t be prepared to do that.
“It is a bit like having a coercive partner. Everything has to be monitored. There always has to be this control because you’re not trusted and if they aren’t looking, you’ll get up to something.”
Meanwhile, migrant academics across the country are campaigning for institutions to shoulder punitive visa costs. A young postdoctoral researcher with a three-year contract, a partner and two children on the average salary is now expected to pay more than 30% of their first year’s take-home pay – £7,240 – upfront on visa and immigration costs.
In addition, the Conservatives plan to increase the immigration health surcharge they have to pay to £625 a year – £2,500 for an academic with a partner and two children.
Institutions including St Andrews University, the University of Edinburgh, Sheffield University, the University of East Anglia and Lancaster University now cover visa fees for their staff from overseas. But many others don’t.
Gareth Edwards, senior lecturer in geography at UEA: University of East Anglia, and co-founder of International and Broke, which campaigns for migrant staff at British universities, says: “Universities obviously can’t control the fees the Home Office charges or the terrible proposals to increase the health surcharge. However, they can control the exposure of their staff to these crippling costs.”
Edwards, who is Australian, argues that universities can afford to pay the fees – and must do so to attract and retain the best staff from abroad. He and his colleagues spent years lobbying UEA to reimburse all visa fees for staff. Last year it agreed to change its policy – too late for him, as he had been granted indefinite leave to remain. In all, he has paid more than £10,000 to the Home Office for himself and his family.
He shares the anger in the sector about proposed increases to the health surcharge, arguing that all migrants working in the UK pay their fair share towards the NHS already through national insurance and taxes.
“They are cloaking a massive visa fee in language that allows them to say they are protecting the NHS.”
Dr Muzaffer Kaser, a clinical lecturer from Turkey who works in the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, says the increased NHS fee “is effectively a pay cut for academics and doctors”.
Like many young academics he has had to reapply for a visa – and pay again – each time his contract has changed, spending £13,000 on visa fees for himself and his family. Cambridge does not cover these costs, although it has introduced an interest-free loan to help.
“I see the impact of staff shortages in my clinical role, but it is more and more difficult to recruit and retain doctors in the presence of current visa regulations,” he says.
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