By Eda Yazici.
On 4th December 2023, the Home Secretary announced a series of policy changes with the aim of reducing net migration. Among the changes announced was an increase in the general salary threshold for the Skilled Worker Visa from £26,200 to £38,700 a year and an increase in the salary requirement for settled people and British citizens applying to bring their partners to the UK from £18,600 to £38,700. The new threshold, which is higher than the median full-time salary of £35,000, comes at a time of persistent wage stagnation and high inflation.
Salaries in Higher Education (HE) have fallen by 20% in real terms since 2009. For those at the beginning of their academic careers, starting salaries are typically around £37,000 and are often on precarious, short-term contracts. This means that from April – when the new policy is due to come into force – it may not be possible for migrant academic teaching and research staff to begin their careers in the UK. This may make even the unsure footing of a year-long contract a distant possibility.
Under the current visa regime, applicants for a Skilled Worker Visa must be paid the higher of the going-rate for their occupation code and the £26,200 salary threshold. For example, the current going-rates for a historian and physicist are £25,600 and £32,600 respectively. For PhD graduates, postdoctoral researchers and under 26s, there are discounts of up to 30% in place on the salary threshold or the going-rate (depending on which applies). Eight weeks since the new threshold was announced, however, there is still no clarity on whether these discounts will remain in place from April. It is possible that in-line with the removal of discounts for shortage occupations, discounts for postdoctoral positions will also come to an end. If the 30% discount continues to apply, future postdoctoral researchers and teaching associates will continue to be classed as Skilled Workers. If it does not, early career academics will either be unable to begin their careers in the UK, or, if they completed their PhD in the UK, will have to apply for other, often less secure visa routes, such as the Graduate Visa, which does not have a path to settlement and is also under review.
Whether exceptions are put in place remains to be seen, but what the proposed changes do reveal is the impacts of pernicious and increasingly restrictive immigration policy on Higher Education. It also shows how immigration policy intersects with low pay in the sector. This has implications for how academic workers fight to improve their pay and conditions; the experiences of migrant workers in HE generally; and the experiences of students. The changes above signal the worrying potential of a future of a sector that is increasingly closed to migrant workers and, if wage growth remains stagnant, where academic teaching and research is progressively deskilled and undervalued.
Linked to the changes in the Skilled Worker Visa route are changes that came into force for the Student Visa route in January this year. Also driven by a desire to reduce net migration, it is no longer possible for postgraduate taught students to bring dependents with them to the UK. It is now only possible for Student Visa holders to be accompanied by their dependents if they are on a postgraduate research course. Not only is this racialised – with the highest number of dependent study visas issued to Nigerian and Indian citizens – but also demonstrates the conflict between the government’s determination to reduce net migration at all costs while depending on international students to prop up the unsustainable funding model in HE.
In England, HE is funded in two main ways: through student fees and direct funding. Direct funding separates teaching and research. The 2021-2022 level of funding for teaching in HE was 78% less than it was in 2010 in real terms. Student fees are expected to fund the majority of HE teaching. For so-called ‘home students’, fees were raised to a maximum of £9,250 in 2012. For international students, fees for undergraduate courses are on average £22,000 a year. There is consequently both an incentive to recruit international students – many of whom face racism and inadequate support from their institutions – and a reliance on international students for funding. At present, international student fees make up 21% of British Universities’ total income. This means that if international student numbers were to fall in line with the government’s fixation on net migration, there would be severe consequences for the financial sustainability of HE institutions. Unless the funding model were to change, this would also likely exacerbate wage stagnation and job insecurity in the sector.
The conflicting policy objectives of cutting funding and reducing net migration is indicative of the follies of dogged ideological commitment to nationalism and a small state. The impact of these conflicting policy objectives is also evident in other sectors – most particularly in health and social care. For academic workers, challenging unjust immigration policy goes hand in hand with improving funding, pay and conditions. This also involves confronting complicity in upholding the hostile environment in the sector.
The hostile environment in HE
The hostile environment suite of policies extends borders into many aspects of everyday life and affects everyone. It determines how people apply for jobs, open bank accounts and rent homes among many other things. The hostile environment increasingly regulates universities. This includes attendance monitoring of students, which puts international students at risk of losing their visas if they miss a certain number of classes; right-to-work checks for all workers including for one-off events; and reporting staff absence among visa holders to the Home Office. The financial dependence on international student fees also means that over-compliance is widespread in the sector because institutions fear losing their licence to sponsor international students. For migrant staff and students, the hostile environment creates a culture of fear that can dissuade people from advocating for change.
For academic workers, particularly those of us who are migration researchers, debordering our institutions is as much about challenging injustice as it is about securing the future of teaching and research. This raises the question of how the deeply interconnected problems of the hostile environment, unsustainable funding models and deteriorating pay and conditions are confronted. It also highlights the importance of not viewing migration as a policy arena in isolation, making it clear that every change to the visa regime affects us all.