Why the UK’s Latest ‘High Potential Individual Visa Scheme’ Is Deeply Discriminatory

The United Kingdom (UK) has announced its latest elaborate scheme for discriminating between the First World elites and everyone else. Its new so-called “high potential individual” visa programme allows graduates of 50 highly-ranked international universities to work in the UK on two to three-year visas. Predictably, almost all these universities are private institutions in the United States and Europe.

There are no South Asian universities on the list. No South American universities. No African universities. This means everyone from Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Amitav Ghosh would have been turned down if they had applied to this scheme after their bachelor’s degrees. High potential, indeed. The beguiling idea of a meritocracy once again simply obfuscates the hardening of elitist ranking systems.

Also read: UK’s ‘Erratic and Hostile’ Immigration Rules Put Indian Students in Bind

Half the universities on the scheme’s 2021 list are American – and almost all of those are private US colleges that cost a small fortune to attend, especially for international students who are less likely to receive financial aid. There is a respectable showing from European countries, Canada and Australia (British universities are excluded because their foreign graduates can already get visas). Eight universities from Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Japan collectively stand in for the rest of the world.

Meritocracy, immigration rights and educational privilege

There is nothing new about the UK implementing discriminatory immigration policies. The Windrush Scandal, in which the British government detained and deported largely Caribbean people as part of a “hostile environment policy,” put to bed any illusions that the UK has built a welcoming or fair immigration system. Moreover, there are other ways graduates can get into the UK, and there are arguably more urgent inequalities baked into immigration regimes elsewhere in the world.

But there is something particularly insidious about the way this new scheme uses the fantasy of meritocracy to link immigration rights with educational privilege. “This new visa offer means that the UK can continue to attract the best and brightest from across the globe,” UK chancellor Rishi Sunak said on Monday. The visa scheme “puts ability and talent first – not where someone comes from,” home secretary Priti Patel added.

Sadly, this is far from the truth. Why else would the best and the brightest, ability and talent, not include graduates from the IITs and IIMs? The University of São Paolo? The “high potential individual” policy essentially fast-tracks visa applications for Ivy League graduates who want to work in the UK. The British government is not interested in the best and the brightest across the globe, but in those with access to elite, First World education (I count myself among this number).

Representational image. A group of graduates gather outside the Sheldonian Theatre to have their photograph taken after a graduation ceremony at Oxford University, Oxford, England, May 28, 2011. REUTERS/Paul Hackett/File Photo

The UK’s “high potential individual” scheme should act as a sharp reminder of the hazards of data punditry. The knowledge economy cheerfully churns out league tables for everything from laundry detergent to holiday destinations, but this does not mean we should accept its conclusions at face value. Especially not when it comes to crucial social and human values, like who counts as a “high potential individual”. Policymakers are happy to use the dazzle of statistics to avoid making actual judgments. “It’s a global ranking!” they can say. But it’s our duty to ask: then why doesn’t it include most of the globe?

The government has created its list of “global institutes” for this scheme by selecting universities that have featured in the top 50 of at least two out of three of the best-known higher education league tables: QS, Times Higher Education and Academic Ranking of World Universities.

“The list of the top 50 Global Institutes has been identified from three of the world’s most reliable university rankings lists, which are widely cited by the education system and used in immigration systems globally,” a spokesperson for the Home Office said when contacted for comment. In other words, these lists are reliable because they’re already in wide use. Now they’ll be in even wider use. Funny how that works.

Higher education ranking systems have been widely criticised for a range of reasons, including their devaluation of social sciences and humanities subjects, their emphasis on research over teaching, and their strong statistical correlation with institutional wealth.

For example, because higher education rankings tend to emphasise research over teaching, academics at richer universities, who have lower teaching loads, are likely to push their universities up the table because they have more time to publish articles and books.

The Home Office did not reply to questions about whether the government examined biases in their chosen rankings.

University league tables have caused palpable damage to institutions of higher education, and therefore to education itself. They have created metrics of educational excellence based on financial resources, and governments have responded by ploughing money into leading research institutions. A handful of universities receive disproportionate levels of funding in the hope that this will catapult them up the ranks.

Now the British government has stepped in with an immigration incentive to add to the mix.

I do not want to suggest that rankings should provide a representative sample of universities around the world. But we should question why rankings are being used as the basis for admitting “high potential individuals” into the UK when they are so clearly biased towards the First World elite.

I have met brilliant academics from community colleges in the US, Indian universities, lesser-known Chinese universities, universities from South America, Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. They conduct ground-breaking research across different disciplines. It seems absurd that they would not be welcome in the UK under this scheme.

The most ironic aspect of all is that the high potential individual scheme would even exclude world leaders and top business people from its purview. Companies fight to hire and sponsor visas for graduates who would never be able to enter the UK under this scheme.

Leaving aside the broader critique, these facts in themselves should give policymakers pause. Why design a visa system that would exclude the very talent you want to court? Perhaps some of the best and the brightest will help them answer that question.

Aliya Ram is a Ph.D. student at Princeton University and a former technology correspondent at the Financial Times.

Featured image: Darya Tryfanava / Unsplash