UK visa scheme for top graduates all but excludes EU universities

31 May 2022 | News

Graduates of universities that do well in research-focused league tables will now be able to come to the UK without a job offer. But even ranking organisations are sceptical of the policy, which heavily favours US institutions

The UK has launched a new “high potential individual” visa scheme that allows graduates of the world’s top ranked universities to come to the country without a job offer – but EU universities are all but excluded because the policy is based on controversial rankings tables.

More than half of the 37 universities on the list are based in the US, including Harvard, Duke, Johns Hopkins and Chicago.

Just three are in the EU: LMU Munich, Paris Sciences et Lettres University, and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.

Hong Kong, Switzerland, Singapore, mainland China and Japan have two universities each in the list, while Canada boasts three, and Australia one.

University rankings “offer no meaningful measures of teaching quality” and the UK government is “deluding itself if it thinks they do”, said Stephen Curry, chair of the Declaration on Research Assessment, which seeks to combat overreliance on metrics in science.  

“The use of this system means that students from the global south are universally excluded from this visa programme,” he said.

Universities are included in the UK’s list if they appear in the top 50 in two out of three selected ranking tables – the UK-based QS and Times Higher Education rankings, and the Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities.

The first two of these rankings do try to measure teaching-related metrics like student-staff ratios.

But research power, measured through things like citations and reputation among academics, plays a greater role in determining a university’s position in the Times Higher Education rankings, and is the only factor in the Academic Ranking of World Universities.

Critics have long argued that these university rankings favour countries like the US, and particularly the UK, that concentrate much of their research funding into a handful of huge comprehensive research universities that subsequently dominate the top spots.

Continental Europe, meanwhile, has historically tended towards a broader, more even distribution of universities, geographically and in terms of funding.

France and Germany also conduct a lot of their research outside of universities, in institutes run by organisations like the French National Centre for Scientific Research or the Max Planck Society.

There has also been an outcry that the UK’s list of top ranked universities does not feature a single institution from south Asia, South America or Africa – including from one of the rankings agencies on which they are based.

The UK’s list will “clearly exclude many highly talented individuals studying at great universities around the world that just happen not to fit with the research-heavy (and resource-intensive) focus of the current global rankings,” said Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at Times Higher Education on Linkedin.

Baty, who is responsible for the THE rankings methodology, said that, “This isn't what we had in mind when creating the ranking.”

Responding to criticism of the list, the UK Home Office, which is responsible for immigration, said that the list was based on “three of the world's most reliable university rankings lists, which are widely cited by the education system and used in immigration systems globally.”

“Using a combination of these lists provides independent validation for institutions and opens up the opportunity for new international universities to move up the ranks and join this list in the future,” a spokesman said.

The new scheme will give graduates a two year visa to stay in the UK, or three if they have a PhD, even without a job offer.

They need to have graduated no more than five years before applying, must pass a medium-level English test, and prove they have at least £1,270 in maintenance funds.

The new visa is touted as part of the UK’s post-Brexit immigration package. Leaving the EU ended free movement of labour to the UK, the Home Office said in a statement, meaning that the “UK can welcome people based on the skills they have to offer and the contribution they can make, not where they come from."

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up