Wellcome Trust: U.K.’s academic visa issues could worsen with Brexit

British flag being cut by scissors from the European union flag
The visa problems that plague non-European scholars trying to attend scientific meetings in the U.K. could extend to their European counterparts after Brexit, the Wellcome Trust warned. (egal/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Visa denials for researchers trying to attend scientific meetings in the U.K. could ramp up after Brexit and threaten the U.K.'s ability to deliver "great science," the Wellcome Trust said. While such issues disproportionately affect African and Asian scholars, the research fund warned that they could extend to European researchers as the U.K. exits the European Union.

“The current system is creaking and causes problems for researchers [outside Europe] who want to travel to conferences to share their ideas, but is also a foretaste of what could come in future if we try to expand the current system to cover citizens from countries in the European Economic Area,” said Beth Thompson, Wellcome’s head of U.K. and EU policy, to The Guardian.

Thompson’s comments come after several foreign scholars could not attend a pair of conferences in the U.K. because they were not issued visas in time, or they were denied a visa outright.

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Several researchers could not attend the Global Symposium on Health Systems in Liverpool earlier this month because they were denied visas. One researcher, Sabu Kochupurackal Ulahannan of the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram, India, was told his visa was denied because of an “insufficient balance” on his bank account, The Guardian reported. Mohamed Alnor, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Sudan International University who was to attend the World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics in Glasgow, had the same story. Officials also told him that they were unconvinced he would leave the U.K. after his visa expired.

“I understand the U.K. embassy’s worry that some people misuse the system, but they make it very difficult for others. I have been prevented from attending a very important scientific meeting after paying more than $2,500,” Alnor told The Guardian.

African and Asian academics face such problems at least three times more often than their European counterparts, Wellcome found in a recent study.

“It is critical that we have rules that enable researchers to travel because it is a fundamental part of their jobs. And it is really important that African and Asian researchers can participate in research. If there is discrimination in the system, it’s essential that it’s addressed,” Thompson said. 

Left unsolved, the bottleneck could worsen. If, after Brexit, U.K. immigration officials meet European researchers with “similar levels of mistrust and bureaucracy,” the country’s reputation for scientific excellence could be at risk. 

“The international movement of researchers is a key foundation of how science works—it thrives on people and ideas moving. After Brexit, the government needs to consider how to deal with the movement of researchers because it is such a fundamental factor in the way good science works and is so important to retaining the UK’s strength,” Thompson said. 

“We are suggesting a reciprocal deal where researchers can continue to move as freely as possible between the EU and the UK. If we add them into the current visa system, which isn’t quick and agile, we will lose competitive edge,” she said.