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Call to fast-track more roles as Cambridge scientists (but not Dr Islam) get fast-track visa option




Daniel Zeichner MP petitioning the Home Office with Newnham College academic Dr Asiya Islam this week. Picture: Alex Mayer
Daniel Zeichner MP petitioning the Home Office with Newnham College academic Dr Asiya Islam this week. Picture: Alex Mayer

The Cambridge science community, backed by the city’s MP Daniel Zeichner, has called for an expansion of the new fast-track visa system for scientists which starts on February 20.

The government is attempting to make it easier for scientists to obtain visas via the innovative route which is being run by the UK Research and Innovation Agency (UKRI), which funds government research, rather than the Home Office - although Cambridge academic Dr Asiya Islam, who remains uncertain about whether she will be able to remain in the UK after this Friday’s EU exit, is unlikely to be eligible.

Applications using the new system will be fast-tracked after February 20 on the basis of their scientific credentials, rather than being judged by the immigration system at the Home Office. However the global scientific hub in Cambridge likes to nurture technicians and researchers into fully-fledged scientific roles within the ecosystem, rather than simply port in top scientists in a way that could be seen to resemble the trasnfer market for Premier League footballers.

Dr Julia Wilson, associate director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “The government’s commitment to expanding the Global Talent Visa route is strongly welcomed by the Sanger Institute. However, it is essential that similar commitments are made to support the recruitment of technical and support staff who help deliver our world leading science.”

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner, who earlier this week joined Dr Islam and campaigners at the Home Office to hand in a letter signed by 2,000 academics calling for the Newnham College sociologist to be allowed to continue her academic work in the UK, said: “This seems more like a headline-grabbing exercise than a thought through policy. The government is saying yes to the best scientists but not their colleagues who make up their teams, nor the historians, economists, musicians or linguists. It seems unlikely Dr Islam would benefit from this scheme. Britain will also need to be open to recruiting many more workers such as lab technicians and engineers in order for the world’s leading scientists to want to come here, as well as the chefs, cleaners, care-workers and so many others that our economy needs.”

Dr Asiya Islam was told to leave the UK after she spent too many days out of the country when conducting fieldwork in Delhi for her PhD, causing outrage and consternation in the Cambridge academic community. Picture: Alex Mayer
Dr Asiya Islam was told to leave the UK after she spent too many days out of the country when conducting fieldwork in Delhi for her PhD, causing outrage and consternation in the Cambridge academic community. Picture: Alex Mayer

Following the profile-raising intervention on behalf of Dr Islam, Mr Zeichner, the shadow minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, received reassurances from the Home Office that Dr Islam would not be asked to leave the country on January 31 while she is still appealing against the decision to compel her to leave through the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber).

Dr Islam was told to leave the UK after she spent too many days out of the country when conducting fieldwork on gender, class, and labour in urban India in Delhi during the academic year 2016-17, as part of her PhD.

Immigration Minister Kevin Foster MP told Mr Zeichner that the Home Office would not intervene “at this stage”, which Mr Zeichner hopes leaves the door open to the department exercising discretion in the future.

“Ministers are very well aware of Dr Islam’s case so we need to keep up the pressure,” said Mr Zeichner. “Many academics have to work abroad as part of their research so this is a case with wider implications. At a time when Britain’s hard-won reputation for global excellence faces many challenges, we need clear thinking to ensure universities can thrive and attract the very best people from around the world.”

The wider response to the debut of the fast-track visa change varied, with the Royal Society calling the new scheme “attractive”, while the Royal Astronomical Society registered concern that many “young, talented researchers” would be excluded.



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