#WeAreInternational – or are we?

A 2017 Sheffield campaign in support international staff was overall successful, moving the university to a position of funding all visa, NHS and ILR fees for staff; providing dedicated HR support; and an interest-free loan facility for staff dependents. We hope that this report contributes to work across HE in improving conditions for international staff.



Over the last decade, the UK’s border regime has become: (1) increasingly expensive; (2) administratively incomprehensible; and (3) arbitrary and punitive in application. Visa fees increase by 20-30% per annum and an NHS surcharge has been introduced. This functions essentially as a form of double taxation, and is due to double shortly. At the same time, our universities have responded to market pressures to recruit students by promoting themselves as international universities, with such slogans as #WeAreInternational, developed here at Sheffield. Since the 2016 Brexit vote, xenophobia has increased, with colleagues from the EU also becoming at increasing risk of falling foul of the Home Office’s xenophobic policies.

The HE sector also has hugely varied policies on international staff, from the ‘gold standard’ at places like St Andrews, where all visa, NHS and ILR (indefinite leave to remain) costs are covered for all staff and dependents, through the much more common situation elsewhere in the sector where international staff are negotiating this expensive and punitive system entirely on their own, without support from their employers. International colleagues at Sheffield and elsewhere had raised these matters individually with HR and management, often to be shut down with claims of costs being too expensive.

At Sheffield, a campaign was developed in early 2017 to push the university to put its money where its mouth was in terms of support for internationalisation. The campaign was overall successful, moving the university from a position of ‘no change to the status quo of essentially no support’ to fully funding all visa, NHS and ILR fees for staff; providing dedicated HR support and access to legal advice if necessary; and an interest-free loan facility for staff dependents. This isn’t everything we demanded – the university should also cover dependents and backpay international colleagues who have been disadvantaged by the university’s unwillingness to listen to their concerns – but the significant progress made here may be able to be replicated elsewhere.

We are not the only ones who have been working on these issues, with similar campaigning happening at other institutions. Notably Gareth Edwards at UEA helped generate some useful early national benchmarking and modeling of the overall costs, which informed our reporting to the university. Edwards’ work showed that an international staff member with a partner and two dependents would have to pay over 30% of their take-home salary just to cover visa fees. There are steps to connect up these local campaigns through the Twitter handle @intnlandbroke and the hashtag #internationalandbroke.

It is our hope that this report can contribute to some more joined up work across the UK in improving conditions for international staff and that the central UCU will support local branches in this cause to make our union truly international.  

With movement across several institutions recently, and with stronger union memberships across the UK, now may be the moment when we can push this beyond local campaigns into a national one. We at Sheffield are happy to help other local branches in coordinating such a campaign.

Sheffield’s Strategy & Timeline

After the Brexit vote and Sheffield’s subsequent announcement of a suite of measures to support EU colleagues, the issues of non-EU international staff were raised with the local UCU and a joint organising group was set up to advance this work. Work continued through these two channels over 2017, sharing information and ideas between people working on this issue. Concerns were raised predominantly via two formal channels:

  1. Union-management joint consultative committee meetings – the UCU raised this as a formal agenda item on their regular meetings with HR
  2. Equality & Diversity – the Faculty of Social Sciences E&D committee established a working group on international staff (See Appendix B)

Prior to 2016 the University of Sheffield limited its Tier 2 visa cost reimbursement to in-country applications only. This arbitrary decision excluded many staff from being eligible for reimbursement. ILR and NHS fees and costs associated with dependents have not been covered by the university either. Following the Brexit Referendum, the University’s implemented financial and legal support for EU staff, leading to concerns about parity.

 From early 2017 the existing local UCU campaign on issues affecting EU staff issues broadened to include issues affecting international staff. This was first raised formally at a joint union-management meeting in May. Individual meetings with HR were also held by individual staff and the E&D group in spring of 2017. Throughout the summer of 2017 the issue stalled with HR, with multiple joint union-management meetings postponing the issue and little to no information provided to individual staff despite repeated contacts.

In Autumn 2017 the University’s Executive Board cited Brexit uncertainty as a basis for making no changes to existing provision. This decision was made based on spurious benchmarking, not against the Russell Group which Sheffield often sees itself in competition with, but against a selection of post-92 universities with no support for international staff, painting Sheffield’s provision in a more positive light. HR’s report was also not developed with international staff, despite reassurances this would occur.

UCU decided to ramp up its campaign through the development of a survey of international staff about their concerns, which would provide material evidence of dissatisfaction and could form the basis of a future public campaign. The survey generated 72 responses from EU and non-EU colleagues and documented widespread dissatisfaction with the University management. A motion demanding more support for international staff was taken to a local branch general meeting and passed unanimously (see Appendix A). A soft release of the critical report to internal stakeholders, Sheffield UCU members and HR prompted immediate response from HR announcing plans to create a dedicated web resource and offer 1-on-1 consultations with HR. 

Further, a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor and representatives of all campus unions and international staff was also scheduled for early 2018. With a change of tone, HR and VC had now become enthusiastic about what the university could provide, while constantly referring to budgetary constraints. That meeting pledged to develop joint HR-union paper on agreed points, primarily full funding for all visa, NHS and ILR fees for staff and provision of dedicated HR support and referrals to external legal advice as required. Costs associated with dependents to be supported through interest free loan. As a matter of urgency, the UEB passes a motion to a substantially enhance its support for international staff.

Lessons learned

  1. There is widespread anger amongst both EU and non-EU staff about how universities have responded to the Brexit vote and the broader shifts in immigration policy over the last decade.
  2. Many international staff are struggling to cover the exorbitant fees. Annual increases in the 20-30% range will only make this more unsustainable.
  3. University administrators and union branches are largely unaware of issues affecting international staff, either through passive ignorance in the case of the union, or perhaps something more wilful in the context of HR departments.
  4. UCU branches are generally overstretched, but when presented with evidence ‘get it’ and are willing to offer support. The same is true for other campus unions, despite having less international staff in their membership bases.
  5. Individual cases will be ignored by HR and management. But when pooled, evidence is harder to ignore.
  6. A multi-pronged approach may provide different pressure points on university management.
  7. There may be scope for further exploration of the E&D implications of discriminatory support provision.
  8. Linking up the issues of EU and non-EU international staff is keyto provide most leverage for gaining concessions.
  9. Ultimately, universities are only concerned about their public image. For Sheffield, pushing on the hypocrisy of the #WeAreInternational campaign, and the luck in timing this around the time our VC was looking at legacy issues, was helpful. There will be other PR pressure points at your local institution.


Appendix A: #WeAreInternational motion passed at branch meeting 29/11/17

In light of heightened and rather polarised discussion of policies on immigration in the UKl, and uncertainty over EU colleagues in particular,  Sheffield UCU is concerned whether the University is supporting our international colleagues appropriately.

This Branch notes that the University provides the following support provision to its non-UK EU and non-EU international staff:

  1. Information and guidance: comprehensive guidance on starting a life in the UK for international staff
  2. Dedicated staff pages for non-UK EU since the EU Referendum, with the availability of legal advice on their immigration status following the EU Referendum.
  3. The University reimburses the cost of Tier 2 visa extensions for non-EU staff.
  4. The University reimburses the cost of Permanent Residency cards for non-UK EU staff.

This Branch further notes that the outcomes of its staff survey circulated in October and November 2017 showed serious concerns amongst both non-UK EU and non-EU international staff in regards to several areas. These issues raised cover a wide range of topics, such as:

  1. Lack of communication on post-arrival compliance with visa rules;
  2. Lack of legal support for non-EU international staff;
  3. Lack of financial assistance with the ever-increasing visa costs for non-EU international staff;
  4. The impact of the EU Referendum and the resulting legal uncertainties on the sense of belonging of non-UK EU colleagues.


Therefore this Branch calls for the University of Sheffield to become sector leading in its support to non-UK EU and non-EU International colleagues to honour the principles of its award winning #WeAreInternational campaign. More specifically, this Branch calls on the University to support its non-UK EU and non-EU international staff adequately and equitably via the following procedures:


  1. Comprehensive information and support provision and corresponding legal advice to non-EU international colleagues, or inquiring on behalf of family members and dependents.
  2. Continue to inform and support non-UK EU staff as the Brexit negotiations continue, acknowledging the emotional pressure that the uncertainties cause.
  3. Reimburse initial visa costs and Indefinite Leave to Remain costs to non-EU international.
  4. Reimburse costs for colleagues with international dependents in meeting visa, indefinite leave to remain, or permanent residency costs.  


Appendix B: Why Equality and Diversity?

Any expense levied at a particular subset of staff raises questions of equality and diversity in the university, particularly given longstanding issues around gender pay gaps and gendered career pipelines. Colleagues with dependents are also adversely affected by the cumulative nature of visa fees (ie. each fee is levied on each applicant, so costs quickly accumulate). So we felt that there were specific E&D issues around gender and care responsibilities that were not being addressed by the universities’ policies.

Our investigations also revealed a potential under the race discrimination provisions for us to raise the differential treatment being provided to EU and non-EU staff (race discrimination law in the UK specifically highlights national identity as one subset of definitions of ‘race’). While we are not aware of this particular element of the law being tested in this context, the FSS committee felt that there was enough there to be able to pursue these matters through E&D channels. We would encourage further conversations about how we may be able to marshall equality and diversity provisions in universities in support of international staff.