More than 30 academics have written to the Home Office in protest at its decision to deny a Cambridge research fellow leave to remain in the UK, preventing her from continuing to study and teach at the university.
Their open letter warns that the government’s harsh application of immigration rules risks alienating international researchers and damaging the ability of UK universities to attract global talent.
Asiya Islam is a highly respected academic in the Cambridge sociology department who has lived in the UK for more than a decade, studying first at the London School of Economics, and more recently at Cambridge. She was a Gates scholar at Cambridge and after completing her PhD was this year awarded a three-year junior research fellowship at the university.
She received a letter from the Home Office last week rejecting an application for indefinite leave to remain in the UK, which means she will be required to leave the country by the end of January when her student visa expires.
The decision was based on the fact that Islam had spent too many days out of the UK during the period covered by her application. However, Islam had explained that she was required to be out of the UK for a number of months to complete essential research for her PhD.
Islam, 31, spent time in 2016 and 2017 researching gender and class in urban India as part of a PhD on the participation of women in the labour market, a necessary requirement to complete her project.
She said she was shocked and horrified by the decision, although she has subsequently learned of other international academics being refused permanent residence because of time spent on research outside of the UK. The Guardian has recently reported on a number of cases of valued academics struggling to remain in the UK as a result of Home Office decisions.
“By rejecting my and other academics’ applications for leave to remain on the basis of their days out of the country conducting crucial fieldwork, the Home Office is signalling that global researchers are not welcome in the country,” she said.
“This puts a dent in the reputation of the UK as a global academic leader, making it a less attractive destination for those seeking world-class excellence in education.”
The Home Office letter informed her that she could “reintegrate into life and society in India … having only being [sic] in the UK for a short period”, and added that she could maintain friendships made in the UK “via modern means of communication”.
“Almost all of my adult life has been in the UK,”. The entire span of my career has been in the UK,” Islam said. “The decision has already had and will continue to have an impact on my ability to participate in international conferences and carry out further research in the near future. I am now not only facing uncertainty but also personal, professional, emotional, and financial costs that I haven’t even had a full chance to account for yet.”
The open letter to the Home Office calls on officials to reconsider and warns that her case sends “a foreboding signal” that “UK universities will continue to lose the talented PhD researchers that they have invested years in training”.
A spokesperson for Newnham College said: “Without talented academics like Dr Islam, the University of Cambridge would not be a global leader in research.
“Dr Asiya Islam is a highly valued member of the research community at Newnham College and the University of Cambridge. Dr Islam has an impressive academic record: she was a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, was awarded the best degree performance award at the London School of Economics, and received the Dr Zakir Hussain medal for academic excellence from Aligarh Muslim University.
Alison Rose, the principal of Newnham College, said: “Early career research fellows at Newnham College and at the University of Cambridge are the academic leaders of tomorrow. We received applications for this post from researchers across the world, and Dr Islam was an outstanding candidate.”
The Home Office said each immigration application was considered on a case-by-case basis, and indefinite leave to remain was normally refused under a Tier 4 visa if an individual was out of the country for more than 540 days over the course of a decade.
Islam is planning to appeal against the decision.
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