Copyright: Wlad74

Admitting foreign researchers to the EU

Leila Sattary interviews Hsuan Chou of Eurodoc on the ongoing problems with admitting foreign researchers to EU countries.

Hsuan Chou coordinates the ‘Human Resource Strategy for Researchers’ project, which is about implementing the European Researcher Charter and Code and is also a member of the Career Development working group.

LS: How does EU law discriminate against young foreign researchers who are doctoral candidates?

HC: EU legislation discriminates against non-EU researchers who are doctoral candidates by failing to recognise their professional status as full-time researchers. There are several very serious consequences of this failure, but four are particularly worth pointing out

  1. it undermines the EU’s own objective of becoming the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world
  2. it goes against the EU’s own principles as elaborated in the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for their recruitment, which explicitly calls for recognising the research profession (‘All researchers engaged in a research career should be recognised as professionals and be treated accordingly’)
  3. it allows for the differential treatment of researchers according to their nationality
  4. it creates obstacles to carrying out (frontier) research

LS: What are the current EU rules for admitting researchers?

HC: EU provisions for admitting foreign researchers are elaborated in the so-called ‘Scientific Visa Package’ adopted in 2005. This package actually consists of three related instruments. The most important for this discussion is the Council directive on admitting non-EU nationals for carrying out scientific research, which is also commonly referred to as the ‘Scientific Visa’. It is the most important because it is the only EU instrument that is directly and legally binding on the member states, the other two measures are recommendations. This Council directive is binding on all EU member states and Schengen associated countries, but it is not binding on the UK and Denmark because these two countries have ‘opted-out’. The Scientific Visa directive contains the admissions provisions for researchers and their families, their rights to reside and to exercise free movement in the EU, and the obligations of the hosting research organisation.

Foreign researchers who are doctoral candidates are excluded from the Scientific Visa directive because they are considered students. This is not evidently clear unless one reads the ‘scope’ of the Scientific Visa directive (Article 3b), which states that ‘This Directive shall not apply to third-country nationals applying to reside in a Member State as students within the meaning of Directive 2004/114/EC in order to carry out research leading to a doctoral degree’. Directive 2004/114/EC is commonly known as the ‘Students’ directive.

In comparison to the Scientific Visa directive, the Students directive is more restrictive in terms of free movement rights, the conditions for renewing residence permits, and rights to work. For example, free movement rights under the Students directive are tied to studies and courses. What this means in practice is that non-EU researchers who are doctoral candidates may not be able to carry out research in another EU country because the proposed research activities may not be considered as ‘courses’. To give an actual example: a non-EU doctoral candidate wishing to carry out fieldwork in another EU member state (e.g. interviews with public officials) may not be able to do so because this research is not a course administered by a recognised university or institution.

LS: What is being done to address these problems?

HC: Eurodoc has pointed out this inconsistency in a Recommendation Paper published in October 2010.  In June 2011, based on our recommendations, a member of the European Parliament, João Ferreira (European United Left / Nordic Green), has launched an official inquiry to the European Commission. This inquiry asks the Commission to, first, explain the discrepancy, and, second, to consider whether it is necessary to amend the scopes of these two directives in order to codify more favourable provisions for foreign researchers. According to EU rules for written questions, the Commission has to respond in six weeks.

LS: What is Eurodoc’s role?

HC: Eurodoc is an international federation of 36 national organisations of early-stage researchers (doctoral candidates and post-docs). Our mission is to represent the community of early-stage researchers in their pursuit of a decent professional life.

To do so, we are active at the EU and national-levels. At the EU-level, we participate in most of the institutional events concerning the European Research and Higher Education Areas; at these meetings, we engage and inform policy-makers and other stakeholders of the challenges facing young researchers (such as inadequate social security rights, poor working conditions). At the national-level, we monitor social/working conditions for young researchers and assist our members in announcing and disseminating information about any unfavourable practices in order to discourage their continuation. Eurodoc regularly publishes recommendations and position statements on EU research and higher education policies. We strongly encourage all universities, research institutions and funding organisations to implement the EU Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for their recruitment.

LS: What outcome are you hoping to reach on the problem of admitting foreign researchers to the EU?

HC: Concerning the treatment of foreign researchers who are doctoral candidates, we would like the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament to jointly amend the scopes of the two directives to reflect doctoral candidates’ professional status as full-time researchers. We believe that the full implementation of the European Researcher Charter and Code under EU law could only positively facilitate this undertaking.

LS: How can researchers support this cause?

HC: There are several ways in which researchers could contribute to this cause. They could directly voice their support for this initiative by contacting their Members of European Parliament, the Commission, and European delegations in Brussels through these channels:

Another waythat researchers could lend their support is by familiarising themselves with the European Researcher Charter and Code. This document contains principles and rights for all researchers, their employers and funders. Eurodoc believes that proper implementation of the Charter and Code could only improve research careers and urge all researchers to promote their full implementation at their institutions and in their countries.

Eurodoc is a non-profit organisation and all our members are volunteers. Hence, another way in which early-stage researchers could contribute to this cause is to become involved in Eurodoc – either through their existing national organisation or as observers in one of eight our working groups (e.g. mobility, career development, gender equality and survey). Please contact us for more ways to contribute to our work or any other queries: board@eurodoc.net

Photo credit: Wlad74_via_Shutterstock


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Leila Sattary

Leila is a freelance science writer specialising in science funding and research policy. She is a former editor of the Euroscientist. She writes for a variety of online and print journals including news and features for Chemistry World, her Lab Rant column for Laboratory News and many more. In her day job she works as a Project Officer at the University of Oxford with particular interest in research policy, knowledge exchange and impact.

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