Overseas researchers in limbo over UK security clearance delays

Incoming staff and students risk losing jobs and funding over delayed checks in ‘sensitive’ fields

November 24, 2022
Source: Alamy

International students face the prospect of losing scholarships and PhD funding because UK government security checks for courses in “sensitive subjects” are taking as long as six months to process.

Under the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (Atas), anyone seeking to study or research at postgraduate level in certain science and technology subjects, or those with a research job offer, must obtain clearance before applying for a visa. Vetting does not apply to those from the European Union, Switzerland, the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, but thousands of postgraduates, PhD candidates and postdoctoral researchers – most of them from China and India – must have their study or research plans signed off.

While the Foreign and Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advises that the checks will “take at least 20 working days to process”, waiting times have often exceeded three months this year and, in some cases, have gone beyond six months. About 13,000 international staff alone had applied for Atas certificates this year as of June, with many facing delays. One Indian engineering researcher was unable to take up a job offer at Northumbria University in September as planned because he had not received clearance more than 80 days after applying.


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Ian Horrocks, professor of computer science at the University of Oxford, said delays of six months were “not unusual”. “Many students who were supposed to start in September have still not received their Atas certificates – we’ve allowed them to defer their start until January, but a three-month delay means they are in danger of losing scholarships,” he said.

While Atas applicants have previously experienced delays, Professor Horrocks said this year was “much worse than anything we’ve seen”. The waiting times have been impacted by a post-pandemic bounceback in postgraduate applications, while the FCDO has diverted resources from Atas to help refugees from Ukraine.

However, the list of courses covered by Atas has also expanded amid concerns over how China might seek to benefit from British research. Hundreds of courses in microbiology, ecology, genetics, veterinary science, physics, material technology and IT are now covered by the rules – including master’s in astronomy, animal care, highway engineering, neuroscience, marine conservation, dentistry, gem studies and pure mathematics. Finding experts to advise on how applications to Atas-required subjects relate to national security has added to delays, Times Higher Education understands.

“The list seems rather arbitrary – you need one for computer science but not statistics,” said Professor Horrocks. “It seems like another example of national self-harm – these are some of the best graduate students in the world who would bring huge benefit to the UK if they were allowed to start their courses.”

While the extent of the backlog is not known as the FCDO does not publish data on processing times, hundreds of students and research staff are likely to still be waiting on decisions. One UK research-intensive university had 89 students awaiting clearance as of mid-October.

Vivienne Stern, the chief executive of Universities UK, said that current delays under the Atas scheme were “significant and unacceptable”.

“While universities are looking to be flexible and support those who have been impacted by the delays, many students and staff have been unable to start their studies or take up new posts, causing huge uncertainty and frustration,” she said.

“We know that officials are working hard to review and process applications, but government needs to ensure the funding and resource is there to help address delays and ensure Atas does not act as a barrier to attracting international talent.”

Many students have described their frustration on waiting for Atas clearance on student chatrooms, with one stating: “Tomorrow, I am going to lose my fully funded master’s at Cambridge because of this stupid certificate.” Another said: “My classes have already started – my plans for visa, accommodation and travel have been ruined.” Another scholarship holder said: “If I lose this offer, I’ll waste a year of hard work, as I’ve declined other offers for this one – this will ruin my career.”

Some recent graduates worried about deportation because their visas would soon expire unless they were allowed to start their master’s, but could not do so without an Atas certificate.

A FCDO spokesperson said it would “make every effort to minimise delays to applicants’ studies, and the majority of Atas applications are processed within 30 working days. However, waiting times can be longer during our busiest periods, so we’d encourage students to apply early.”

Lord Johnson of Marylebone, the former science minister, said the lack of transparency over decision-making should be addressed. “At the moment, guidance indicates that student and researcher Atas applications may take ‘at least 20 working days’ to process and ‘at least 30 days’ for applications made between April and September. Such an open-ended statement fails to provide a meaningful service standard for such applications,” he said.

More generally, the Home Office should “systematically provide information on whether student route applications have been processed against service standards in a more usable format and with greater specificity than is the case at present. This should include, for example, a summary of performance against service standards by country, subject and higher education institution.”

Researchers hoping to enter Australia have also reported delays in security checks, with some would-be PhD students reporting waiting as long as three years for their visa applications to be considered.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

Simple. Do not come to the UK if you can help it. The Home Office runs a "hostile environment" policy despite all the public PR about global Britain and the like. This means they assume by default the worst of you if you are from abroad and a foreigner from certain places.
We need to demand that the specific reasons for requiring ATAS certification for a course of study be detailed. As the article says, it seems to be both arbitraty and far-ranging. If the work to be done is able to be published openly, it's hardly a matter of 'national security' after all.
Undoubtedly the security checks are needed in some research subject areas, though some UK staff would fail them as well, if they were to be applied to them. Working on DARPA research projects has certainly led to some interesting situations where UK research staff are concerned, with more than a few contracts being lost due to an academic's previous history or current politics, how many of those will be passed or ignored by ARIA/ARPA security checks will be interesting...

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