FLAWED and “embarrassing” Home Office policies, that routinely see overseas academics have visa applications denied “at random” are jeopardising the reputation of Scotland’s universities and colleges, according to Scotland’s minister for higher education.

Evidence provided to the Sunday National by numerous academics working for Scotland’s most prestigious universities reveal visas sought by visiting academics to take part in partnership research trips, meetings and conferences – including as part of projects funded by the UK Government – are being denied even though they meet the criteria and have provided vast amounts of evidence.

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Those affected include funded PhD students and interns, leading academics working on joint research projects and conference delegates. The rejections highlighted are said to disproportionately affect academics from the Global South countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Previously it has been claimed that refusals are so common the UK is operating a de facto “travel ban” on academics, business, church and NGO leaders, musicians, artists and performers from Middle Eastern and African countries.

The National:

Last week it emerged that 17 delegates due to attend the European Conference on African Studies, hosted by Edinburgh University, had their visas refused, with dozens of applications left pending 10 days before the conference. Last Friday the Home Office, which has been working closely with conference organisers, said it had reviewed many of the decisions, with only five refusals left outstanding.

However, many claim that refusals are routine, and question why lobbying, which takes time and resources not always available, is necessary. Minister for Higher Education Richard Lochhead said concerns underlined the need for Scotland to have its own migration policy.

Staff from the Glasgow Centre for International Development gathered 29 recent examples of visa denials in response to a single tweet earlier this year.

Analysis showed 11 cases had been denied because the Home Office was not satisfied the applicant would return to their home country, with others refused because it was claimed they could not meet costs, despite evidence to the contrary being submitted. Its report found a “deep-seated concern for the ability of UK research institutions to be globally relevant” as a result.

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Professor Dan Haydon, director of the centre, added: “These are genuine partnerships between professionals that are relatively straightforward to evidence. Government strategy appears deeply confused.

“The visitors we see being denied visas are some of the highest calibre students and researchers from their home countries. The process of application is expensive, burdensome and invasive, and they are often deeply embarrassed by visa denials, which of course affects their relationships with us.

“We now find ourselves advising researchers who plan to host meetings with partners to consider holding them outside the UK in a location where visa acquisition is more straightforward.”

Alison Phipps, Glasgow University professor of languages and intercultural studies, said that she was among a growing number of Scottish academics routinely holding meetings and conferences outside of the UK to avoid wasting money on refused visa applications and unused flights.

She added: “It is now so normal in the course of my work. I can predict that if I am working with anyone from the Global South their visa will be refused. The [visa] process seems to have tightened up hugely in the last two years.

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“I’d like to be able to work without chaos and to exercise a duty of care to the partners I have agreed to work with. I am an academic – I want to educate, to debate to research. But [lobbying on visa rejections] has become a dominant part of my work.”

Several other academics from both Glasgow and Edinburgh universities echoed her concerns.

Paul Nugent, professor comparative African history at the University of Edinburgh, said: “It is a huge issue. It makes no sense because two parts of the [UK] Government are working at cross purposes. You have projects getting funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to encourage collaboration. And yet when they try to collaborate colleagues have visas refused.

“It’s embarrassing and can be extremely damaging. Decisions seem to be entirely random. The system seems to be set up in a way that people fail.”

Temitayo Olofinlua, a Nigerian writer now hoping to attend next week’s African Studies conference, had her initial visa application refused in April because the Home Office said supplied bank statements were “not consistent” with her annual income. Though the refusal letter said she had no right to a review or appeal, it was overturned with the help of conference organisers. However she said the impact – which involved a three-day round trip to reapply in Lagos, additional costs and time on gathering yet more paperwork – was substantial. “The UK has no idea of the unmeasurable costs of getting a visa, of all that is lost and can never be regained, of the investments in hope, dashed and then given again,” she said.

Other visiting academics spoke of the distress caused when visas for family – including young children – were refused. One earth science PhD student said she was almost forced to give up a four-year study programme and return to Nigeria after her husband and children – aged two and six – had visas refused despite having checked guidelines before accepting the funded place at Glasgow University. The decision was fortunately overturned.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “It’s a point of embarrassment and a loss to scholarship if an academic can’t take up a university’s invitation to lecture or participate in a conference in Scotland because their visa application is blocked because they’re coming from what the Home Office deems to be a high-risk country.

“Barriers like that are just one flaw in an immigration policy that can too often be unwelcoming to talent. What we really want is for the UK Government to take the chance to create a new immigration system that values international talent and collaboration.”

Lochhead added: “It is absolutely unacceptable that UK Government policies are causing delays and difficulties for international academics who have been invited to Scotland – and it is deeply concerning to hear that this is now threatening to have a negative impact on our universities’ activities.

“As a country, we are renowned for international collaboration and welcoming academic staff from around the world – but the UK Government’s visa system is putting this in jeopardy. It is time for a tailored migration policy reflective of Scotland’s needs.”

A Home Office spokesman said that all immigration applications were considered “on their individual merits and on the basis of evidence available” in line with UK immigration rules. “We welcome international academics and recognise their contribution to the UK’s world-leading education sector,” he added. “We are unable to comment on individual cases without further information.”