Improving conditions for foreign students, researchers

The European Union Parliament last week supported draft rules that will offer ‘talented’ non-European international students and researchers improved living and working conditions. The aim is to boost the ability of member countries to attract the world’s finest minds.

The draft rules were backed by parliament with 578 votes to 79 against and 21 abstentions – showing considerable support for a rule change that, it said in a press statement, “would also clarify entry and residence conditions”.

The idea was to boost the long-term competitiveness of member states and to “create better conditions to make the EU more attractive to third-country nationals seeking opportunities to do research, study, take part in a student exchange, or do paid or unpaid training, voluntary service or au pairing”.

On 25 February, parliament voted on its first reading of the draft legislation, which will be handed over to the next parliament, due to be elected in May. The new parliament will either build on the work done by the current sitting, or “start afresh”, the statement said.

Competing for brains

“Other countries in the world are doing a better job than we are in attracting competent and well-qualified workers. We often have complicated bureaucratic procedures,” said rapporteur Cecilia Wikström from Sweden.

Simpler and clearer rules were needed to make the EU more attractive. “More foreign students and international exchanges would boost economic growth, promote innovation, create more jobs in the long-term and make our member states more competitive.”

The EU spends 0.8% less of its gross domestic product on research and development than the United States and 1.5% less than Japan, according to the European Commission, “prompting many of the world’s best researchers and innovators to go there instead”, the statement said.

Parliament voted to entitle people from outside the European Union to stay in the country in which they studied or conducted research for 18 months in order to seek work or set up a company. The European Commission had proposed an entitlement of 12 months.

“Researchers' and students' family members would also have the right to stay and work for the same period,” said the statement.

Researchers, students, trainees and volunteers would also have the right to move to other European Union countries and carry out activities there for up to six months.

The draft rules propose a 30-day deadline for accepting or refusing visa applications – the commission had suggested 60 days – as well as for deciding on appeals against refusals. Fees charged for applications should “not be so excessive or disproportionate as to hinder the aims of the legislation”, and host institutions should reimburse fees paid by applicants.

Moves towards greater internationalisation

Although higher education is a responsibility of member countries, at the European level the commission, ministers and parliament have – in necessarily rather ponderous processes – been working to encourage higher education cooperation and internationalisation and to attract and retain highly skilled migrants.

Among other actions, last November the European Union Council of Ministers issued a policy declaration that supported reforms to EU directives that would assist non-EU nationals to enter member states for research and studies.

It urged countries to develop comprehensive programmes to make higher education more international in terms of student and staff mobility, curriculum development, and strategic cooperation, partnerships and capacity building.

And the declaration called on states to promote international degree and credit mobility systems, provide assistance for academics to work abroad, and support “the recognition of credits, degrees, qualifications and competences gained abroad by internationally mobile students, researchers and staff”.

Last July the commission launched a new strategy, European Higher Education in the World, pledging stronger policy and financial support for the internationalisation of higher education and calling on countries to use immigration rules to enhance rather than create obstacles to student and academic mobility.

It stressed both the need to attract more foreign students to Europe, and to bolster the international dimension in higher education for the benefit of the 85% of European students who are not mobile.

In 2005, concerned that Europe was losing out to competitors in attracting highly skilled migrants, the EU adopted the Scientific Visa, which was directly targeted at attracting foreign scientists and researchers. And in 2009 it produced the Blue Card to attract highly qualified foreign professionals.