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Maze made out of passports
Careers and professional development, Equality, diversity and inclusion, Work and occupational

Passport privilege in academia

Parvathy Ramesh outlines the routes for change.

03 January 2023

In the second year of my PhD, I asked one of the PhD students in my department what I should spend my training budget on. “I’d recommend an international conference or a training course abroad,” they said. “You get to travel for free, and you meet many people from around the world doing all kinds of interesting research!” I had everything that should have allowed me to attend one of these prestigious international conferences – a good travel budget, the blessing of my supervisory team, and an abstract that had been accepted. What I didn’t have was a passport that would give me visa-free access to a high-income country (HIC), a wealthier nation where summer schools and conferences are usually hosted.

Barrier to Application

ECRs from low and lower-middle income countries (LMICs), such as myself, may choose to migrate to a HIC to progress their career for a variety of reasons: lack of appropriate supervision or subject expertise in their home country, or a shortage of funding or resources in their field. There are academics who are forced to leave their country due to persecution, violence, and conflict. Imagine you are one of these ECRs from a LMIC who has made the decision to pursue an academic career abroad. One of the first challenges you will face is proving the equivalence of your qualifications and experience. Sometimes, a degree from an LMIC is not considered equivalent to a UK degree, which means that to start a PhD, the applicant may have to do the same degree or modules again, often having to cover the cost of the degree themselves. Depending on the university they apply to, ECRs, despite having finished their entire degree in English, may have to pay to sit English language tests. Even when you have the correct documents, applying to universities online and attending interviews can be difficult if you live in a place with unreliable internet connectivity and electricity, or if you are unable to pay an application fee or travel for interviews.

Barrier to acceptance

Once you submit your application, you are significantly disadvantaged compared to your peers who hold degrees from universities in HICs – most universities that are ‘highly ranked’ (according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings) are not based in LMICs. They would have benefited from research opportunities and recommendations from better-connected academics as a result of studying and working in these highly ranked universities. There’s also the UK’s ‘high potential individual’ visa. This can be awarded to graduates holding a qualification by an eligible, highly ranked university to allow them to work in the UK. In the most recently published UK Visas and Immigration list, all universities that are considered eligible are based in 11 of what the World Bank term high- or upper middle-income countries. 

Barrier to settling in

Once you have received an offer for a PhD or employment, you will need to start the time-consuming, expensive process of applying for a visa. This is where class and passport privilege intersect: unless you manage to gain a rare scholarship that covers all travel expenses, you will need to come up with enough money to pay for health insurance, visas, deposits, and flights. The exchange rate is almost never in the favour of visa applicants from LMICs, so you will most probably have to resort to loans, savings, and charity to start your visa application. Finally, once you have passed the hurdle of getting a visa and arrive in the UK, you develop an understanding of how travel freedom is going to affect your career progression.

Barrier to participation in academic normality

In a blog post about the hidden costs of being a scholar from the Global South, Nihan Albayrak-Aydemir explored how passport privilege severely disadvantages academics who wish to travel for conferences, with a knock-on impact on their career trajectory. This deeply resonated with me, having had to turn down multiple opportunities to attend international conferences due to a combination of passport privilege and prohibitive costs. Despite having a travel and training budget, many scholarships and grants make no mention of visa application costs, which can sometimes exceed the cost of the conference registration.

While international offices of universities offer advice on applying for student or work visas to the UK, there is very little guidance on helping existing ECRs apply for a travel visa for a third country. Therefore, ECRs fear that their visa application would be rejected, which in turn would affect every visa application they make in the future. The time, fear, and money involved in applying for a visa puts ECRs off from attending these events. Their absence is a loss to the conference and other academics as well, as they miss out on the valuable and diverse contributions and perspectives of ECRs from LMICs – potentially explaining why most of the abstracts of studies featuring in ‘international’ conferences focus on a Western, HIC population.

So, what are the solutions?

Learning from a shutdown world

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed passport-holders from HICs to the challenges faced by those with less powerful passports: having most countries become inaccessible, the frustration of having to gather vaccination cards and test results and applying for visas prior to travel to prove that your purpose of visit was essential. Teams that organised international conferences and training considered these challenges and responded appropriately – timelines were adjusted to allow for enough time between acceptance of abstracts/confirmation of attendance and the actual date of the event, so that participants could collect documents needed to apply for a visa. Organisers converted in-person events to hybrid events to enable participants to present their work and network with peers. Some conferences implemented virtual coffee and chat networking sessions or ran mentoring schemes to facilitate online networking. Some organisations hosted events in countries with more favourable vaccination requirements to enable researchers to attend.

All of these adjustments could easily be applied in the present day to enable passport holders of LMICs to access these events. Now that countries have started easing Covid-19 related restrictions, we learn from these events and implement practical steps, both as individuals and organisations, to ensure that ECRs are not disadvantaged because of their nationality.

Upfront rather than retrospective reimbursement

Most universities in the UK will reimburse academics who arrive on a work visa. Academics from LMICs, and especially those with families, may struggle to come up with this amount. Some ECRs may be unable to take up longer contracts, simply because they cannot afford the cost of paying visa fees and insurance for each additional year. Universities can take several measures to accommodate these ECRs, and in turn encourage and retain talent from LMICs. Firstly, rather than reimbursing the fee, it is better to provide the visa fee upfront, especially for academics who come from countries with a weaker currency. PhD students are rarely reimbursed for visa costs, although they provide significant contributions to research and teaching at universities. It is essential to include visa fees within grants or scholarship allowances, to give these students equal footing with their peers with more powerful passports.

Awareness: Conference and training accessibility

Secondly, if there is a departmental fund that allows ECRs to travel for conferences and training, visa fees can be added to the type of costs that can be reimbursed or claimed. Moreover, supervisors and advisors who work with PhD students should be aware of the financial and logistical challenges of applying for a visa as a self-funded student, or on a student stipend. Supervisors can encourage participation in conferences and training at national level, and facilitate students in finding and applying for funding that would enable them to access opportunities abroad. Conferences have also created different bands of registration fees, so that those researchers from the poorest countries pay the least.

Prepare institutional gatekeepers

Thirdly, departments and line managers should be aware of the hurdles that ECRs face while applying for travel visas. It is good practice to coordinate with the university’s international office and familiarise oneself with permission letters and letters of authorisation that supervisors and line managers must sign for the ECR to submit as part of their visa application. Delays with these letters can cause ECRs to lose out on an important opportunity, as there are often long waiting lists to attend a visa appointment. To provide visa-related documents promptly, it is worth having a departmental template readily available.

Open the conversation

Finally, regardless of one’s nationality, it is crucial to understand and openly discuss the challenges that ECRs from LMICs have consistently faced in their career path. They should be offered solidarity and support to ensure that their contributions to academia are acknowledged and celebrated.

About the author

Parvathy Ramesh is a PhD student in Mental Health at the University of Manchester. Born and raised in India, her doctoral thesis examines suicide and self-harm among Indian women.