Under the new program, graduates of top-ranked global colleges can move to Britain for two years, even without a job offer. But no African, Indian or Latin American universities made the list.
LONDON — When Britain started a program this week offering a two-year visa to graduates from some top global universities, Nikhil Mane, an Indian computer science student at New York University, welcomed the news.
“I was happy,” said Mr. Mane, 23, whose university was on the list. “It’s a good way to pursue our dreams.”
More than 5,000 miles away, Adeola Adepoju, 22, a biochemistry student at Olabisi Onabanjo University in Nigeria, also read the announcement with great interest. But he had the opposite reaction.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Mr. Adepoju said. “No university from the third world is ranked.”
Britain’s “High Potential Individual” visa program allows graduates from 37 top-rated world universities in Australia, Canada, China, Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and the United States to come to the country for two years even if they do not have a job offer.
A majority of universities on the list are in the United States, including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, San Diego.
The government said the plan would attract the world’s “brightest and best” and benefit the British economy. Critics, however, say the plan nurtures global inequalities and discriminates against most developing countries.
The purpose of the policy is to create “a highly desirable and able pool of mobile talent from which U.K. employers can recruit” and drive economic growth and technological advances, the government said in its announcement. It did not put a cap on the number of applicants who would be accepted, and said that graduates with Ph.D.s would be allowed to stay for three years.
“We want the businesses of tomorrow to be built here today,” Rishi Sunak, the British chancellor of the Exchequer, said in a statement. “Come and join in!”
The program is in line with Britain’s post-Brexit visa policy, which has made entry easier for high-skilled workers and harder for those considered low-skilled ones, as well as asylum seekers. Visa pathways include a skilled worker visa for people who have received a job offer in Britain, a visa for people considered a “leader or potential leader” in certain fields, and a program to allow international students who graduated from British universities to stay for at least two years.
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Mr. Mane, the New York University student, said that after he graduates with a master’s degree, he will be allowed to stay in the United States for three years. After that, his prospects of getting another visa are uncertain.
The opportunity to go to Britain “opens more options,” he said.
The new British visa has been praised in some academic circles in the United States as one to emulate. But many academics, students and politicians in Britain, Africa and India have spoken out against it, saying that the universities that students attend are largely influenced by their social and geographical circumstances, and that the new scheme rewards those who are already more privileged.
“I would not be eligible,” said Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and a senior lecturer in machine learning at Queen Mary University of London, who went to a university in India that is not on the list. “It is very hurtful to find that you’re devalued and that people within your community are devalued because of arbitrary thresholds.”
Dr. Gurdasani said that as a student, she got one of seven spots to study medicine at Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, for which thousands of students competed. There, she received what she said was rigorous training, seeing patients with very complex illnesses, including infectious diseases, and building expertise that she then brought to Britain.
“We’ve seen the lack of this in the U.K. during the Covid pandemic,” she said, “It’s very, very shocking to see that after that we are seeing the same sort of names, the same universities pop up, which will favor obviously a particular kind of privileged white person.”
Madeleine Sumption, the director of the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, which tracks immigration patterns, said the new policy was an innovative idea, but with drawbacks.
“How do you decide who the highly skilled people are?” she asked, adding that the current policy would admit someone who just scraped through Harvard but not the highest achieving students at a top Indian university.
Introducing other criteria for assessing applicants, such as grades, would be fair, she said, but much harder to enforce. “It’s very convenient for the government to just have an institution be on the list or not.”
Britain’s Home Office said the list had been compiled from leading global university ranking lists, and that new international institutions could move up the ranks and later join the list.
However, university rankings are widely criticized in many quarters, with critics saying they often fail to grasp the quality of teaching and often overemphasize research over instruction.
Phil Baty, who is responsible for developing the methodology of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which is among those the British government used, said in a post on LinkedIn that “this isn’t what we had in mind when creating the rankings.”
Zubaida Haque, the executive director of Equality Trust, a British charity, said that in offering the new visa, the British government failed to grasp that race, class and financial barriers prevented many deserving students from reaching top universities.
A 2017 study of Ivy League colleges, as well as institutions like the University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT and Duke, most of which are on the British visa list, showed that more students came from families in the top 1 percent of income distribution in the United States than the bottom half.
“This scheme shows that the government does not understand the systemic racial and class inequality in this country and they clearly do not understand it anywhere else,” Ms. Haque said. “It’s an elitist visa scheme.”
She added that the program gave an unfair advantage to those who needed it the least. “There is likely to be a good pipeline for these graduates anyway,” she said.
Christopher Trisos, a senior researcher at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town, said that the program was also detrimental to Britain itself.
“If U.K. businesses and governments want to play a role in addressing the biggest challenges of this century — energy access, fighting climate change and pandemics — they need to be including skills and knowledge from developing countries,” he said.
Mr. Adepoju, the student from Nigeria, said he hoped to become a researcher in molecular oncology.
“I might not get a degree in the 50 top universities but I have high potential and I want to achieve great things,” he said. But, he added, “It’s their loss, not mine.”
Elian Peltier contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.