Speaking to Times Higher Education, the vice-chancellor of Ulster University, Paddy Nixon, has said an ‘all-Ireland’ work visa should be introduced for students after they graduate. Mr Nixon also urged the Irish and UK governments to tackle the challenges facing universities in the post-Brexit era.
Nixon argues that an all-Ireland visa would be a ‘compelling offer for students.’ In his opinion it would create what he describes as an ‘exclusive arrangement’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It would enable foreign students, graduating from any university in Ireland, to access a visa permitting them to find employment and stay in the country.
The Irish Sea can be used as a border, Nixon suggested – because foreign students would be prohibited from entering Northern Ireland to work on the UK mainland. The Republic of Ireland already has several programs enabling international students to secure the right to work in the country following their graduation.
Ulster University facing problems with potential post-Brexit visa changes
Britain leaving the European Union could potentially pose problems for Ulster University, especially if the border that separates the North from the South changes. The future of the university’s Magee campus in Derry is in doubt. Currently, it attracts staff and students from both sides of the border, but a ‘hard’ border could threaten enrolment and staff numbers.
Meanwhile, education leaders in the Republic of Ireland have expressed concerns about the treatment of Irish students in the North, post-Brexit. There are fears that they could be classed as international students and forced to pay higher fees, while Northern Irish students studying in the Republic would be subject to international fees.
According to a report published in The University Times – the largest student newspaper in Ireland – several universities have set up a taskforce to tackle the challenges of Brexit, including University College Cork (UCC) and Trinity.
Trinity, along with the Irish Universities Association (IUA) have hinted that they would back the exemption of Northern Irish students from having to pay international fees.
Good Friday Agreement may protect student visa rules
Mr Nixon said: “My sense is that pragmatism will prevail and this will not happen. If we start treating [students from the Republic] differently, we are in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Nixon stated that should an arrangement be made, degrees in an English-speaking country would be offered, plus the chance for graduates to remain in the country and secure a good job. For Northern Ireland, reaching an agreement could result in an increased number of international students in the country.
However, an all-Ireland visa scheme could draw criticism from unionists who fear that Northern Ireland’s links with the UK could be compromised, according to Nixon. Nevertheless, he maintained that without such a scheme, Ulster University would struggle to consistently attract overseas students.
He said: “If Ireland is forced to compete with a similar visa scheme in the future [minus the abolished Tier 1 post-study work visa scheme], Ulster University would find it extremely difficulty.”
Mr Nixon believes that a post-study work visa of some kind would benefit the Republic of Ireland too, citing a ‘chronic shortage of graduates’ to fill specific technology jobs in Dublin.
Northern Ireland could struggle due to visa changes post-Brexit
During an interview with The University Times in 2016, mere months after the Brexit vote, Nixon voiced concerns about the ‘challenging times’ Northern Ireland would face.
“Attracting foreign direct investment and growing our own local economy relies heavily on investing in skills and graduates,” he said during last year’s interview.
Despite a solid ranking in world university lists, Northern Ireland’s education sector is fraught with challenges. Not only does it have Brexit to contend with, but underfunding is a massive problem too.
Former Minister for Employment and Learning in the North, Stephen Farry, told The University Times last year that the current funding situation was “unsustainable.”