By Sorana Toma (MRN)
Among European Union countries, the UK has been good at attracting foreign talent. But recent changes in political discourse, of which Theresa May’s declarations are the latest example, are harming these efforts and sending negative signals to foreign students and professionals alike.
Sorana has recently completed her PhD studies in Sociology at the University of Oxford and is currently a Research Officer at the same university. She is interested in the topic of international migration, studying both the drivers of mobility and migrants’ integration at destination, with a particular focus on the West African migration flows to Europe.
A recent BBC Newsnight has shown the exploitative work conditions in which citizens from Romania and Bulgaria working in low-skilled jobs find themselves as a consequence of the labour market restrictions they encounter in the UK.
However, the ways in which these restrictions affect highly skilled workers have been less addressed in the public debate. Part of the reason is that the stereotype of the Eastern European migrant is a day laborer in construction or in the care sector. I’d like to share some reflections on this issue based on my personal confrontation with the system as a Romanian national, educated in the UK and seeking to take up employment here.
During the last decade, most developed countries have introduced policies aimed at facilitating the recruitment of highly skilled labour. Countries compete hard for both foreign students and professionals, and the United Kingdom had been at the forefront of the “battle for talent” among its European peers.
Foreign students are particularly attractive since they provide a highly qualified group of potential workers that are already familiar with the host country regulations and system; they also contribute to the viability and quality of some higher education programmes (in fact, the share of international students brings points to a university in several world university rankings).
I am one of the international students attracted by British policies: after finishing my undergraduate degree in France, I was drawn to the UK by the quality of its universities and research centers but also by the international atmosphere that it was boasting. I joined a Masters programme at the University of Oxford and subsequently went on to do a PhD.
Yet I was soon to discover that policies aimed at the internationalization of the higher education system and of the highly skilled labour force are increasingly at odds with the restrictive turn in migration policy. The dismantlement of the post-study work option is a recent example, which has been argued to send negative signals to prospective students based on a survey conducted by the UK Council for International Student Affairs.The extension of labour market restrictions for A2 citizens, an idea floated by Theresa May last week, would further reinforce this contradiction.
Having successfully completed my doctoral degree, I applied and was recruited for a research position in another department of the same university. While returning to Romania, my home country, is still a very strong and desirable option for me, a first professional experience in Oxford is a great boost to my career as well as my professional opportunities.
As a EU citizen having studied for 5 years in the UK, I certainly did not expect the transition to the labour market to be so problematic. First, I discovered that I did not correspond to the UKBA’s definition of the “highly skilled”. My degree would not get me the necessary number of points (4 years of doctoral studies + 1 year of Masters earn only two thirds of the points that a 1 year MBA can get). I therefore applied for a work permit under the Tier 2 category, but following a specific application reserved for Romanians and Bulgarians.
Five months passed between the moment I submitted my application and the time I received the actual work permit. During this period I was not allowed to take up my position (and the project lost valuable research time) nor inquire about the status of my application. The research project I was recruited for was, ironically enough, on the effects of migration policies on the mobility of the highly skilled.
Mine is a fortunate case. My employer is a large university and my job much more flexible than most in the private sector. I doubt any private sector entity can afford waiting such a long time for a new employee. I’ve also benefitted from the technical support of a service specialized in dealing with work permit applications at the university. This allowed me to quickly access and fill the correct forms and increased the chances that my application was successful.
Even so, after four months of anxious waiting, I had started considering taking up another job offer in Belgium. As EU citizens, Romanians and Bulgarians have the right to work in several other Member States and will rather move to these than return to Romania after getting a much prized UK diploma only to have the employment door slammed in their face. Not only is this a loss for the UK labour market, it is also a substantial loss of British taxpayers’ money: unlike non-EU nationals, A2 citizens pay home tuition fees and so receive a state-subsidized education in the UK but then go on to pay taxes somewhere else.
Furthermore, the restrictions are also not in the interests of the UK higher education system and companies. At a time when Australia just introduced a post-study work option and when France has backed down from its decision to cancel its own, it seems the UK is going against the current in a context of an increased competition for brains. At the end of the day, is it not just a lose-lose situation?