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31 May

The new visa route for graduates is a con

How can it be portrayed as pro-immigration when it doesn’t recognise universities in Africa?

By Jacqueline McKenzie

Over the years there opportunities have been decreasing for overseas students to gain work experience in the UK — whether they studied here or not. It was for this reason that the government’s announcement of a visa route for “high potential individuals” from across the world was, at first sight, something to welcome. From yesterday, Monday 30 May, students who have studied at one of fifty eligible universities can apply for a two or three-year work visa, without having secured a job, and even switch to other long-term employment visas.

Those in support of this visa route, colloquially known as a visa for top talent, thought it provided an excellent opportunity for students, especially from the Global South, to acquire the skills needed to meet today’s challenges in science and technology, including in climate change and food security. Those who were worried about the scheme were concerned that the Global South was about to enter a new era of the brain drain that stymied many countries’ development in the mid-20th century. 

The latter group need not have worried, however, as it turns out the visa scheme excludes their citizens — unless they happened to be at one of the fifty eligible universities. Given that there are more than 25,000 universities, the top fifty ranking represents just 0.2 per cent. Even the Times Higher Education rankings, used by the Home Office, covers 1,600 universities, including many in the Global South. More than 20 universities on the visa list are in the US (which you’d think can provide plenty of post-study work opportunities of its own). This is especially concerning in light of our own policy experts having expressed caution about university rankings; Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute in Oxford, told the New Scientist that “top universities and the best universities are not the same thing when it comes to teaching quality”.

So what is the visa route in reality? Godfrey Martin, fellow of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, and a former student and lecturer at the University of the West Indies, describes the scheme as discriminatory because not a single university in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America or south Asia is among the fifty listed. He notes: “The real issue is that the UK has failed to train enough people and what they are doing here is to simply poach resources from other countries that have spent more than we have training their professionals, but they would rather have people from Europe and North America.”

Olusola Oyewole, secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, says: “The UK is wrong to assume that graduates from high-ranking universities are more skilled than graduates from Africa. Indices used to rank universities, like academic reputation, employer reputation, faculty to student ratio and citations per faculty favour long-established universities.” Such factors disadvantage African universities, he says, because of their “relatively young age”.

This visa route is pointless if it is not more accessible. Ultimately, the UK has missed an opportunity to factor in reparations in its immigration policy — and a good start would have been to make such an exciting opportunity available to students in the Global South.

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