U.K. Opens New Visa Route for Foreign Scientists, But May Still Curtail Their Number

Jennifer covers palaeontology, evolutionary biology, and science policy from the UK and Canada.

The United Kingdom has finally begun revealing some of the details of its new immigration policies, although the information provided yesterday has done little to satisfy anxious universities, which are worried that their ability to hire foreign scientists will be greatly impeded.

In a statement to the House of Commons, the U.K.'s home secretary, Theresa May, described a new annual limit on the number of immigrants allowed from non-European Union countries. It will be set at 21,700—that's a reduction from 28,000, which was the number of non-E.U. people who entered in 2009 under the immigration pathways known as skilled (Tier 2) and highly-skilled (Tier 1) workers. The government's policy will include an amendment to Tier 1 that lets in 1000 of the 21,700 people under a new "exceptional talent" scheme; the government said this will apply to scientists, academics, and artists, although May provided no details on how people would qualify.

The new immigration plans will allow "Britain to remain competitive in the international jobs market, while ensuring migrant labor is not used as a substitute for those already looking for work in the U.K.", May told members of the House of Commons.

The new Tier 1 and 2 limits will replace the widely criticized monthly Tier 1 and Tier 2 visa allocations to universities introduced by the new U.K. government after it took power in May. Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, a collection of the U.K.'s largest research universities, said that it is unclear whether the numbers revealed yesterday are an improvement on the temporary caps, which the Russell Group viewed as limiting the U.K.'s ability to compete in the global market for academic talent. The University of Cambridge, a Russell group member, also issued a statement protesting May's announcement:

The University of Cambridge cannot keep its place in the world rankings if it is prevented from recruiting the brightest and the best-regardless of nationality. The Government's current visa quota proposals threaten our ability to recruit both the academic leaders of today and the exceptional young talent from which will grow the Nobel Prize winners of tomorrow.

The higher education lobbying group Universities UK had pushed hard to influence the government's new policy and its chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, issued some modest praise for May's plan, saying in a statement:

It is good that the government has listened to the arguments put forward by the research community about the need to ensure an appropriate route for people with exceptional talent in science and academia to enter the UK through the creation of a new route within Tier 1.

However, Dandridge expressed concern about how the government plans to define "exceptional talent," pointing out that talent is difficult to measure. Dandridge says that her organization is keen to further discuss the immigration proposals with the government to clarify the details.

Imran Khan, director of the advocacy group Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE), echoed such concerns in a statement:

So far we've got exceptionally little detail on the 'exceptional talent' route. The UK needs to be attracting far more than 1000 of the world's top scientists and engineers annually, so we hope this is just one piece of the puzzle - but it's encouraging that scientists are finally ranked alongside footballers in getting due recognition from the Home Office.

In line with Prime Minister David Cameron's campaign pledge to reduce net migration to the United Kingdom the tens of thousands by 2015—roughly 196,000 people entered in 2009—May also launched a consultation that will focus on changing the Tier 4 immigration pathway, which is known as a student route because it is predominately used by people coming to study at the undergraduate level in the United Kingdom. Tier 4 currently accounts for two-thirds of all immigrants entering the United Kingdom each year. Any restrictions on tier 4 could have an impact on the U.K. economy, universities have warned. The Russell Group has estimated that international students attending U.K. universities contribute, through their tuition fees and living expenditure, at least £5.4 billion to the U.K. economy annually.

Posted in Funding, Europe