ATAS vetting scheme delays deterring talent and putting research projects at risk

08 March 2023

Severe delays in a pre-visa checking scheme are endangering research in vital areas such as medicine, engineering and computer science and undermining the UK’s science superpower ambitions, leading universities have warned.

Waiting times for students and researchers applying to the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) have significantly increased compared to 2021 causing highly talented researchers to pull out of valuable research projects and businesses to pull investment because programmes are stalled for months while individuals wait for a response.

ATAS checks students and staff applying to work in a wide range of STEM areas at postgraduate level. However, the scheme has been hit by growing delays in 2021 and 2022 with fears that these will only grow this year because of a continuing lack of resource from Government.

A survey of over 1450 students and staff from 21 UK higher education institutions coordinated by the Russell Group of research-intensive universities revealed significant delays in 2021 and 2022, with student application approvals taking over 10 weeks.

The survey showed that:

  • Student application approval is taking 53 working days, well above FCDO’s target of 30 working days
  • Universities are reporting cases of students waiting over 110 working days for a decision
  • Processing times for staff applications have more than doubled compared to 2021
  • In the last 2 years, over half (53%) of students reported receiving their certificate in excess of 30 working days.

Respondents also described a lack of communications from advisors, confusing questions on the application form for those whose first language is not English, and inadequate guidance. This has led to a high volume of duplicate submissions and errors which cause more delays.

The Russell Group has called for urgent action to tackle this before the 2023 student applications cycle. It is calling on the Government to work with the sector to enhance guidance, improve the application form, and ensure the teams administering the programme are properly resourced. Universities recognise the need for safeguards to protect national security, but it is important that the vetting process is agile and does not undermine efforts to bring leading global talent to the UK.

Last week (1 March 2023), the heads of the Russell Group, Universities UK International, UKCISA and UCEA wrote to FCDO minister Leo Docherty highlighting the impact of ATAS delays and calling for these issues to be addressed ahead of the 2023 applications cycle. The full letter can be found below.

Commenting, Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said:

"The UK has always been a magnet for the most talented people from around the world and while no-one disputes the need for due diligence when they are working in sensitive areas, that process must be clear, efficient and properly resourced.

"That has not been the case for the last two years and this has caused real problems - undermining vital research and putting off some of the most talented people from around the world. All of which risks the Prime Minister’s plans to make us a science superpower.

"The problems are not insurmountable though, so we are urging Government to sit down with the sector to look at ways to streamline the process, provide the necessary resource to clear the backlog and avoid a third summer of damaging delays."

Survey responses showed increased delays to ATAS approvals and longer average processing times are already impacting on research projects in strategically important sectors such as chemical engineering. It has led to businesses retracting funding, and PhD applicants and highly qualified researchers withdrawing from opportunities in the UK.

Delays are also having a substantial impact on international students, leading to increased costs and stress for applicants, and in a number of instances leading to highly qualified candidates abandoning applications. 

Professor Sir Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, added:

"Research-intensive universities recognise risk and wish to work closely with Government and the security services to mitigate it, but the delays in the operation of the expanded ATAS requirements are now seriously impeding our ability to deliver on our intentions."


The survey comprised of 1465 respondents, including 1,196 staff and student applicants (663 who applied in 22/23 and 533 in 21/22), and 269 staff supporting applicants (such as those involved in recruitment and student support services). 

UCEA, UKCISA and UUK helped with the design and dissemination of the survey, which was coordinated by the Russell Group.

Sector letter on ATAS March 2023

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