Emma Roberts, Director of teacher recruitment and retention specialist Teach In, discusses the changing immigration landscape ahead of Brexit and its impact on the UK teacher recruitment shortage…
Under new government immigration policy implemented ahead of Brexit, the cost of a UK visa for both EU and non-EU citizens has soared  – primarily due to mandatory health surcharges for regular workers set to triple.
The original surcharge was introduced in April 2015 and doubled from £200 to £400 per year in January 2019 under Tory leadership. With Boris Johnson now elected it is set to rise again to £625 per year, meaning it will have tripled since its initial inception  – an increase that is set to have a significant impact on schools across the country that had turned to overseas teacher recruitment in a bid to tackle the UK teacher shortage.
Affordability is a key factor in attracting much-needed teacher talent from overseas; the UK, with its high living costs and comparatively low staff salaries, is already an expensive destination choice for international teachers. The threefold increase in the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) – which all students, professionals and family members must pay when applying for the visa – will make moving to the UK a financial challenge for many overseas teachers. It is unreasonable to think the UK will still attract a volume of overseas teachers to prop up UK teacher shortages by increasing the IHS by 313%.
In addition to the hike in IHS, overseas teachers need to apply for a visa to give them working rights in the UK. All visa categories have also been steadily rising, again making the affordability factor prohibitive. One of the largest visa categories for young teachers aged 18 to 30 wanting to live and work in the UK for up to two years is the Youth Mobility Visa – the current cost is £244 per application . In real terms, the increase means that a single teacher will need to pay £1494 before they even enter the country. At current exchange rates for an Australian teacher this would mean an out of pocket cost of $2871, which is no mean feat for a young person just out of university. The new costs will make it almost impossible for families to afford the move to the UK. The knock on effect is that the UK will miss out on some very talented and experienced teachers.
The UK risks deterring teachers from countries such as Canada and Australia, where there is a surplus of qualified staff, encouraging them to take their expertise to places with a more welcoming, less expensive immigration policy, more favourable tax regime and competitive teacher salaries, such as Dubai.
So what can be done to keep the door open to much needed international talent?
I strongly implore the DfE to review the UK immigration policy for teachers as a matter of urgency in view of the thousands of unfilled vacancies across British schools. According to government data, recruitment targets for initial teacher trainees have been missed for the last seven years, and vacancy rates for full-time teachers rose by over 153% between 2010 and 2018 . 42,000 qualified UK teachers left the state-funded sector over the 12 months to November 2018, while overall pupil numbers continue to rise.
The government and Department of Education (DfE) has recognised that visa costs need to be lowered to attract workers in specific skilled jobs where there is a shortage in the UK; however within the education sector, this list only includes secondary teachers for maths, physics, computer science and Mandarin  and is limited to those applying in the Tier 2-Sponsorship category. It is a very difficult category to apply in due to minimum salary requirements as well as an annual quota on numbers allowed to enter on this visa. Those in shortage occupations which earn the highest salaries are prioritised while professions such as teachers and nurses are often at the bottom of the quota list as they are competing with highly paid workers in private enterprises. If these workers are lucky enough to meet all the requirements, then the costs are only marginally lower – £464 instead of £610 per year for those staying less than three years.
Lowering visa costs across the board in the education sector and simplifying the application process to make it as user-friendly as possible would help to incentivise more teachers in more diverse subject areas to come to work in the UK. Providing additional funding to support and publicise recruitment programmes – including vital overseas ones – is imperative if we are to plug the gaps in UK schools and reverse the decline in teaching staff.
The UK needs to ensure it is seen as a destination of choice for skilled teaching staff, offer competitive salaries, reasonable visa costs – particularly for those with families – and attractive contract conditions, with the option to renew or extend their stay without needing to leave the country. Above all we must work together to preserve the lifeline that international teachers offer to UK pupils, in order to provide them with the best education possible.