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UK work visa for elite graduates is exclusive and based on flawed assumptions
The UK government’s announcement of a new work visa option aimed at attracting top graduates has elicited some backlash because the list of eligible institutions features no universities from Africa, Latin America or South Asia. The Conversation Africa’s Nontobeko Mtshali asked Orla Quinlan, Director of Internationalisation at Rhodes University in South Africa, to share her thoughts on the implications such visa programmes have for international integration and intercultural efforts in higher education.
What has the UK government announced?
The UK government recently introduced a new “High Potential Individual” short-term work visa. Home Secretary Priti Patel said the intention was put “ability and talent first” – not where people come from.
The conditions of the high potential individual visa allow a stay of two or three years in the UK for graduates holding a master’s degree or a PhD, respectively. This visa can’t be extended, but holders may apply for longer-term visas.
Applicants need to have financial resources to acquire the visa and to sustain themselves while searching for employment. The high potential individual visa doesn’t pertain to international students who are already registered at universities in the UK.
But the visa is restricted to graduates from specific universities featuring in the top 50 places of two international university rankings.
Who is eligible?
The most recent list of eligible universities comprised more than two dozen US universities. Other institutions are in Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Singapore and Sweden.
Each of these universities appeared in at least two of the following ranking systems: the Times Higher Education world university rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities and the Quacquarelli Symonds world university rankings.
African universities don’t appear in the top 50 of any of these ranking systems. The criteria they use consider aspects like the university’s research output, high achieving academics and alumni, reputation among employers, and international student ratio.
The performance of individual students isn’t a criterion in any of these rankings.
Ranking systems are commercial entities. While deeply flawed, they play an increasing role in shaping opinions about the quality of tertiary education institutions. But many universities that don’t feature in rankings graduate students who excel in their individual performances. The ranking systems are already heavily contested. To only correlate high performing individuals with specific universities is unscientific. Rankings have little to do with individual performance.
If any ranking system has to be used, it’s been suggested that the Impact Rankings produced by Times Higher Education might be more appropriate. This measures universities’ impacts on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. At least, this ranking is more inclusive of global South universities.
What does this tell us about inequality in higher education?
Attending the highly ranked eligible institutions requires the means to pay for fees, accommodation and living costs. For example, almost all the US institutions on the list are private colleges that charge high fees. Many high-performing students from the global South can’t afford to attend. Many brilliant students will, therefore, never be eligible to access the high potential individual visa.
Universities from Latin America, Africa and most of Asia aren’t on the list of eligible universities. It’s not even possible for many universities to meet the specific criteria chosen. This exclusion sends a negative message.
The high potential individual visa shows short-sightedness about the experience, insights and skills that graduates from the global South could bring to the UK. Many individuals demonstrate high achievement outcomes, in spite of operating in under-resourced universities. This is due to their resilience and grit – the strongest predictor of success, according to the studies of American scholar Angel Lee Duckworth.
Should something change?
Countries are entitled to make their own decisions. But some countries are making short-term populist decisions, rather than longer term strategic decisions for the benefit of their own citizens and the world.
The world needs to build relationships for future global collaboration. We need to create, share and disseminate knowledge – a key lesson of the COVID pandemic. Mobility of higher education students needs to continue. These mobile students need prospects in the countries where they study, as one option, to circulate the global pool of talent.
The claim from Priti Patel that this visa “puts ability and talent first – not where someone comes from” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The UK is offering an elite visa for well-off graduates from elite institutions to come and stay temporarily in the UK for two to three years.
The call from Rishi Sunak, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, for students to “take advantage of this incredible opportunity to forge their careers here” is hardly realistic. A visa of this duration is simply not long enough to genuinely forge a career beyond an initial experience.
Any person who has just arrived in a new country still has to acclimatise to the culture, find a job and develop relationships before they can start to contribute.
What are the implications for higher education?
The high potential individual visa isn’t particularly going to affect the mobility of students to, and from Africa’s higher education sectors because it’s a work – not a study – visa. But it’s a troubling manifestation of a changing value system which is increasingly exclusionary, elitist and undermining of diversity.
Higher education in Africa is acutely aware of its local challenges. These include the impact of structural social and economic inequality, environmental degradation and climate change in African countries. We know that we cannot have global peace and security if we don’t improve education and job opportunities for all. That is why African universities are concerned with higher education being relevant and solving real problems by connecting our research, teaching and learning and community engagement and sharing our knowledge with the world.
Orla Quinlan is affiliated with the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA), a South Africa NPO, and a voluntary member of their Executive Team. This article represents the views of the author in their personal capacity.