The Glasgow Guardian sits down with Professor Stephen Forcer, Head of the University of Glasgow’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures (SMLC), to discuss how Brexit has impacted the start of the new academic year.
The Glasgow Guardian: What exactly have the problems experienced this year been? Have some language assistants been unable to obtain a visa?
Professor Stephen Forcer: This topic relates to language teaching (especially speaking) that is an essential part of our degree programmes. The main problems we’ve faced this year result from the new visa requirements imposed by Brexit. We were able to limit the extent of the problems by continuing to employ a number of assistants who had already worked with us the last session. However, in a few cases – one in Czech, one in Spanish, and two in French – we had to bring in new assistants. On a practical level, the process to recruit new language assistants simply takes a lot more time, particularly as it now includes a requirement to sit an English language test, which must be paid for up-front by the applicant and sat in person at a testing centre, which can mean quite a journey for some applicants. In total, the assistants need to have around £1,500 of their own funds available to cover the costs of the visa process including the English language test, biometric residence permit, NHS surcharge, plus any mandatory hotel quarantine. Between the School and the University, we will reimburse applicants once they are in the post.
“The assistants need to have around £1,500 of their own funds available to cover the costs of the visa process…”
As you would expect, though, the new process has been quite unsettling for the assistants themselves, in human terms, as well as practically. On the one hand, we’ve tried to make things work for the new assistants, and it should be said that the First Minister has also written admirable public letters about the value and place of Scotland’s international community more widely. For example, this is regarding applications from EU citizens for settled status. On the other hand, Brexit was openly promoted on the basis of making it harder for non-UK citizens to live and work in the UK, and a general rejection of other languages, cultures, and peoples. In this, and other, cases, that attitude is making itself felt, in ways that are affecting not only the institution but also individual human beings.
In terms of specifics, we have been working to secure visas for four [new] language assistants. The Czech assistant, whose post is kindly supported by the Czech government, has been able to begin teaching. For the Spanish and French assistants affected here, the nature of the process means we can’t be absolutely sure when the visas will come through. But all the assistants have met the English requirements, and we are currently looking at a start date at the end of October. We have been able to make a variety of contingency arrangements to cover this, and we have other first-language speakers in place for classes that were due to be taught by the assistants affected here. As I say, in many other cases classes are being taught by assistants who were already in post.
GG: Do you believe this will continue to be a problem every year – is the current model sustainable? Presumably, it’s harder to attract native language assistants from Europe than it was pre-Brexit.
SF: If the current requirements remain in place then that will be a problem in future years. But we can manage it, even if it will take more time and resources than when the UK was a part of the EU. There is still strong interest in the language assistant posts – even after Brexit people still want to come to teach languages in the UK, and attracting assistants is helped by the support we receive from university and government partners overseas. This sounds obsequiously on-message, but it also really helps our external appeal and relationships that we have strong support for languages from the University. For instance, as far as I know, the University of Glasgow was the first to publicly underwrite compulsory study abroad for all students until 2024-2025, in light of the withdrawal from Erasmus+.
As with other sectors of employment, it isn’t impossible that some sort of post-Brexit adjustment could be made to the process for new language assistants and similar jobs. Covid has made it more difficult to plan staffing and move ahead with the recruitment of new posts – but even with budgetary and other uncertainties related to Covid-19, without Brexit, we would have been able to have all our language assistants in a post in plenty of time for Semester One. As we are seeing right now in other sectors, though, the full consequences of Brexit are only coming into relief as they are implemented. In some cases, this means working with government officials to understand what the rules mean in practice, and how they are best navigated within the law. For this first year of Brexit rules, we’ve been able to find a way through, subject to the delays in these individual posts and some contingency measures.
“Covid has made it more difficult to plan staffing and move ahead with the recruitment of new posts…”
GG: What will the University do to minimise disruption in future years?
SF: Timing is a key point here. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, in that you need to have a College and University agreement for new posts before you can start recruiting for them, and in order to request new posts, you need your student, financial, and other data for the current year to have settled down. Ideally, requests for new posts should also fit within the University’s overall cycle for budgets and planning. But clearly, we will need to look at bringing the whole process further forward, to guard against the maximum possible delay. As we’ve done this year, we’ll also need to continue to have an idea of what a “Plan B” looks like, in case individual assistants do get delayed or have a visa application declined.