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What are the visa options for researchers and PhD holders?

The academic and research sector faces a growing challenge due to skills shortages, particularly in the context of Brexit uncertainty. The Government announced a series of reforms to take effect from Autumn this year to help mitigate the effects of the sector's ability to attract and retain highly skilled academics and researchers from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA).

We consider some of the key visa options available to non-EEA researchers and PhD holders in the UK and those looking to re-locate to the UK and discuss the Autumn reforms.

Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) – this route was created in 2011, designed for highly skilled individuals in the fields of science, humanities, engineering, the arts and digital technology to “enrich the UK’s knowledge, economy and cultural life”. The route has been continuously reformed due to low intake and is subject to an annual limit of 2000 places set by the Home Office. Changes made in January 2018 provided automatic endorsements for non-EEA citizens appointed to senior positions at UK universities or research institutes.  Individuals who hold a PhD and are active researchers should consider this option, particularly if they have won prizes for their work or are a member of a national academy.

Tier 5 (Government Authorised Exchange) – through this route universities and research institutes can sponsor academics and researchers to undertake short term work experience or training with the aim of sharing knowledge, experience and best practice. This route was expanded and reformed in July 2018 and universities and research institutions can now host any type of short-term engagement with a non-EEA academic or researcher in a manner that other employment sectors would struggle to accommodate.

Tier 2 (General) – there are also a number of exemptions within the Tier 2 (General) route to accommodate highly skilled researchers making it easier for them to live and work in the UK through their sponsorship by their employer for this visa type. In particular the Tier 2 (General) route contains exemptions for PhD level roles including:

  • An exemption from the resident labour market test for “supernumerary research” positions making it easier to obtain the initial visa;
  • Greater weighting for PhD level roles within the Tier 2 quota such that visa applications for these roles are prioritised above others; and
  • An exemption from the indefinite leave to remain minimum salary rate making it easier to remain in the UK permanently.

Visitor visa – the visitor visa route also contains some carve-outs to allow highly skilled individuals to visit the UK to gather information and facts, share knowledge and advise on international projects being led from the UK.

The permitted paid engagement visitor route also facilitates one-month paid engagements of academics to examine students, give lectures (as long as it’s not a part-time of full-time role) or take part in selection panels.

Autumn 2019 Changes

The first change announced was the removal of PhD level jobs from the Tier 2 visa cap which allows 20,700 new entrants to the UK under the Tier 2 (General) visa route each year.

These changes reflect a recognition of the importance of senior academics and researchers to the UK and the desire to encourage such individuals to work in the UK’s academic and research sector.

This move has been labelled as largely symbolic due to the fact that no PhD level roles have ever been refused under the cap given the preferential point weighting given to PhD level roles. However, the removal is likely to reduce recruitment timeframes and circumvents the need for monthly pre-approval which is of benefit to sponsors recruiting PHD holders.

In addition, the Government has proposed a new exemption within the settlement rules on excessive absences from the UK. The current test for assessing continuous residence for the purposes of indefinite leave to remain provides that applicants must not have been absent from the UK for a period of 180 days or more in any of their previous five years’ residence in the UK. However, “overseas research activity” will also count as residence in the UK from Autumn for the purposes of applying for settlement meaning that researchers will no longer be unfairly penalised from time spent overseas conducting vital fieldwork and research.

Whether you are an individual or organisation, for more information on any of these visa types, please contact a member of our immigration team.



Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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