Prejudice against people from other countries – overseas academics are still being deported or denied permission to work and their colleagues feel enough is enough.

Professor of human geography at Birbeck, University of London, could not believe it when she was informed that before she could conduct a  PhD viva exam at another university she was asked to submit her passport for Home Office checks.   Wells feels that this sort of heightened surveillance is part of the same ‘hostile environment’ which has seen academics threatened with deportation and unable to bring their children into the country.  In recent months there have been numerous cases where the Home Office has refused visas to academics who are working at British universities, or to their families.

The Home Office expects all employers to check that potential employees are not working illegally and universities appear to be more and more nervous of falling foul of the Home Office and have therefore been applying this, even to one-off activities such as taking a PhD viva, reviewing research or even when delivering a guest lecture.   Academics who have been furious about the Home Office refusing visas to established university staff have been fighting back by declining  to volunteer their passports for checks for casual work at other universities while others have been asking university managers to support migrant researchers by paying their visa and immigration fees, which can sometimes run into the tens of thousands.

Professor Wells agreed to submit her passport as she didn’t want to jeopardise the student’s viva exam, but wrote a formal letter to the university regarding these practices.  Following this, she was allowed to supervise the exam without having her passport checked.  If academics already work at the university there should be no need to check their papers. People in universities are being made to feel like immigration suspects or immigration police.

Universities should resist this as it is extremely worrying that it is just accepted that it’s our job to monitor international students for the Home Office.  A student has to be reported for not attending a supervision meeting.  PhD students have to be authorised and be justified to leave the country to do field work, academics are monitored too.

An Australian and professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cardiff university, Chris Chambers was recently told to send his passport for checks before an unpaid guest lecture at another university, he refused on principle.  It is said that every time an academic says yes to an inappropriate request like this they are said to be ‘feeding the beast’ and it often ends up with academics being deported.

Science is considered to be a global pursuit and our 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 these people shouldn’t be able to give guest lectures.

The university’s human resources department responded saying that 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 was giving the lecture unpaid the checks were unlawful.  The request was dropped.

Chambers says that universities are terrified of breaking Home Office rules and being fined or of 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.  He says he has already seen a huge 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.  There appears to be 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 does not wish 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 an external examiner was paid without a right to work check.  It would be nice to see universities presenting some resistance as a sector to this unjust government policy.  And that they should not pass responsibility for it to individual members of staff.

A professor of psychological sciences at Liverpool university was horrified when he was asked by a competitor institution to send his passport for two days work reviewing research.  He advised them that he wasn’t prepared to do that.  Everything has to be monitored, there has to be control and it makes you feel that your are not trusted and will get up to something if they are not watching.

Migrant academics across the country are campaigning for institutions to cover these punitive visa costs.  A postdoctoral researcher with a three year contract, a partner and two children on an average salary is now expected to pay more than 30% of their first years take-home-pay- £7240- upfront on visa and immigration costs.

Institutions including St Andrews University, 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.

Senior Lecturer in geography at the University of East Anglia, Gareth Edwards, 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 proposals to increase the health surcharge.  However they can control the exposure of their staff to these crippling costs”.

It is argued that universities can afford to pay these fees and must do so to attract and retain the best staff from abroad.  Edwards 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.  There is much anger in the sector about proposed increases to the health surcharge, as it is felt that all migrants working in the UK pay their fair share towards the NHS already through national insurance and taxes.  The increased NHS fee will effectively be a pay cut for academics and doctors.