UK visa for top talent excludes graduates of African universities

The High Potential Individual visa is intended to attract graduates from around the world to work in the UK, but its criteria excludes anyone who studied at a university in Africa


24 May 2022

Scientists working in a medical laboratory

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A new UK visa aimed at attracting the best graduates from across the world risks excluding talent from African countries, scientists and policy-makers have warned.

The High Potential Individual visa, due to be launched by the UK Home Office on 30 May, is aimed at people who have graduated in the past five years from one of what are often regarded as the world’s top universities.

People with a recent undergraduate degree or PhD from one of these universities will be able to move to the UK for up to three years without needing to have a job lined up beforehand. Typical UK visas for foreign researchers require a pre-existing job offer, a fellowship, certain research grants or that the individual is a notable prize-winner.


The Home Office has produced a list of foreign universities it considers to be the best in the world by compiling institutions that appear in the top 50 at least twice across three specified global university league tables.

The resulting list includes no universities in African nations, effectively excluding anyone who has studied in Africa from the scheme.

“These ratings are based on criteria that favour universities which have been around for hundreds of years and have access to a lot of funding,” says Amina Ahmed El-Imam at the University of Ilorin in Nigeria.

“As someone from Nigeria who did their PhD in Britain, it’s heartbreaking to see that there are still processes being put in place that inadvertently exclude Africans,” she says. “Does this visa mean that there are no individual graduates from African universities with high potential?”

“I think this is a deeply inequitable approach,” says Christopher Trisos at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “The exclusion of African universities strikes out many graduates with in-depth knowledge of major challenges facing humanity this century, such as climate change, food security and expanding access to technology.”

“If UK businesses and government want to play a role in solving these challenges, they need to be recognising and including the diverse skill sets held by many graduates from universities in developing countries,” he says.

Global university league tables have previously been criticised as a flawed way of measuring academic excellence.

“There is a wealth of evidence across social sciences that rankings produce a skewed idea of what constitutes quality in higher education and science, especially on a global scale,” says Jelena Brankovic at Bielefeld University in Germany. “Making a new ranking by combining existing rankings does nothing else but create an illusion of an added layer of objectivity.”

“Many governments use various rankings to make important decisions, often because that’s just the easiest and the cheapest way of dealing with complex issues,” she says. “But it’s a highly problematic one, with potentially serious negative consequences, and should never go unquestioned by the public.”

“This is the sort of the idea the Home Office loves because it allows them to look liberal while maintaining close control,” says Nick Hillman at the Higher Education Policy Institute in Oxford, UK. “I’m sceptical about it because ‘top’ universities and the best universities are not the same when it comes to teaching quality.”

The Home Office didn’t respond to specific questions about why the visa relies on a potentially flawed league table system or why it excludes graduates from African universities.

“The new High Potential Individual route will make it as simple as possible for internationally mobile individuals at an early stage of their careers who demonstrate high potential to come to the UK,” says Home Office minister Kevin Foster.

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