Flexible visa procedures put search for talent first


IMMIGRATION IS always a thorny subject and it often leads to very polarised opinions. In the area of research the international flow of people is a necessary condition for excellence. The most successful countries in the world have always operated an open system for attracting researchers, notable examples being the US and the UK.

It is a central part of European research policy to reduce national barriers to the immigration of researchers. For many years, Ireland has adopted a policy of open borders with national funding schemes open to researchers globally. In fact, Science Foundation Ireland was established on the principal of attracting outstanding researchers to Ireland regardless of nationality.

A major concern relating to immigration is that large groups of people will come and become a burden on society. However, in the case of researchers, the opposite is true as they bring a great deal of expertise.

There is clear evidence that visa restrictions will act as a barrier for researchers. For example, in the US following the September 2011 attacks, stringent visa restrictions were introduced. Studies showed that by 2003, there was an 18 per cent reduction in the number of new PhD students from China, India and South Korea.

These three countries are the main sources of international PhD students in the US. Eventually the visa restrictions were relaxed, however there are still reports of researchers offered positions having significant problems in obtaining visas.

There is a common pattern when countries set immigration barriers intended to reduce the number of economic migrants. The rules are usually blunt and ignore the fact that highly-skilled people are a valuable asset. Indeed, new immigration rules introduced in France overturned their previous open approach. A number of high-profile cases led to that government making a u-turn.

It was France that pioneered the Scientific Visa (1998) where non-EU researchers could be awarded a visa without the need for a work permit. In addition, their family members could join them immediately; previously this could take up to two years. This approach formed the basis for the European Third Country Directive in 2005 that required Member States within the Schengen zone to adopt the French approach. Once a person enters Europe through a country in the Schengen area they can move freely through all such countries. Although Ireland is not a Schengen country, the government signed up to the directive.

In Ireland, the directive is implemented through the Hosting Agreement scheme operated by the Department of Jobs Enterprise and Innovation (DJEI), the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Services (INIS) and the Irish Universities Association (IUA). The scheme targets non-EU researchers employed by the Irish higher education and public research sector as well as companies involved in research, development and innovation. In the context of the directive, a researcher is defined as a graduate with a primary degree (Bachelors or Masters) employed to carry out research. It is important to underline that they do not need a PhD, as can often be the case for researchers in industry.

The Hosting Agreement provides the researcher with a visa and a work permit is not necessary. Researchers and their families on the Hosting Agreement have the same rights as the Green Card holders. This means immediate family unification, children can avail of the public schooling and family members have easier access to the job market.

To use the Hosting Agreement, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation must accredit an organisation (this is a free service). All of the higher education and public research organisations are accredited. There are currently 10 companies accredited including, IBM, LM Ericsson, Avego, Vornia and SolarPrint. Given the advantages of this scheme for hiring researchers it is surprising that so few companies have sought accreditation.

There are a total of 530 researchers on the Hosting Agreement and they represent 78 countries with the highest numbers from India, China and the US (over 50 per cent). This is a significant number given that there are about 3,500 researchers in total across the seven universities.

Researchers choose a location based on the quality of facilities and people but fast track immigration is always a consideration for those who require a visa. Given the global competition for talent, it is essential to have schemes like the Hosting Agreement in place so we can continue to attract researchers to Ireland.

Conor OCarroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association. iua.ie

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