Home Office will nearly double number of fellowships where visa applications are fast-tracked, while ‘MIT of north’ plan is also floated

The government is to double the number of fellowships that offer “accelerated” UK visas in an effort to attract more elite researchers.

The UK currently has 62 fellowship schemes – including those run by the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, the British Academy and the Royal Society – where the visas of successful applicants are fast-tracked by immigration authorities.

International fellows funded by these organisations need only a letter from the relevant organisation to obtain entry into the UK.

In a statement on 23 December, the Home Office said that this number will increase to 120 early in 2020, with fellowships run by Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, Human Frontier Science, European Research Council and the European Molecular Biology Organisation joining the list.

However, many are likely to regard the move as relatively minor when compared with the potential scale of challenge posed by Brexit when it comes to the UK’s ability to attract leading researchers.

Home secretary Priti Patel said that the change was to ensure “the UK continues to be at the forefront of innovation.”

“We need an immigration system that attracts the sharpest minds from around the globe,” said Ms Patel, who added that the “decisive action” would help “boost the number of top scientists and elite researchers who can benefit from fast-tracked entry into the UK.”

The announcement comes as Jake Berry, minister for the Northern Powerhouse, told the Sunday Times that he is keen to create a new university in Leeds – dubbed the “MIT of the north”.

“We want to set up a world-leading institution in the north to rival Oxford and Cambridge,” said Mr Berry, who is MP for the Lancashire constituency of Rossendale and Darwen.

The plan to emulate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Boston, follows a pledge by Boris Johnson in August to make the UK a “global science superpower”, despite concerns that the country could lose access to several leading scientific collaborations led by the European Union after Brexit.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, however, Chris Day, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University and chair of the N8 partnership of northern research-intensive universities, said that investment would be more effective if it were channelled into existing institutions and partnerships, such as the Henry Royce Institute, a nine-institution partnership led by the University of Manchester.

“Having networks of these excellent centres, working closely with industry, is the way forward, rather than starting from scratch on a new institution which could take years [to get going],” said Professor Day.