The Government made a number of announcements on its plans for a “post-Brexit” immigration system at the Conservative Party conference in early October.
Under the proposals, future UK migration policy would treat EU citizens in the same way as migrants from the rest of the world, and would prioritise migration of “highly skilled” workers. Home Secretary Sajid Javid has suggested that the Government will consider scrapping the cap on Tier 2 (General) visas, the route that scientists and engineers most commonly use to enter the UK. Highly skilled migrants are expected to be required to meet a £30,000 salary threshold, as currently required under the Tier 2 system, but Javid has suggested that the value of the threshold might be reviewed.
The proposals are in line with some of the recommendations put forward by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) last month. The IOP responded to the MAC’s consultations on both EEA workers and on international students.
In our submissions, we emphasised that the UK has a well-documented STEM skills gap and a specific problem with the supply of physics and engineering professionals, arising, in part, from the shortage of physics teachers. The impact of this STEM skills gap on the UK economy is mitigated by both (European Economic Area) EEA and non-EEA migration. We have four priorities for any future immigration system:
- It must be both functioning and welcoming, to ensure that physicists can travel to the UK to attend conferences, to visit institutions or facilities for research and collaborations, and to take up fixed-term contracts as well as permanent roles.
- It must allow employers to select the best person for a specific role, regardless of where they come from.
- It must work for the talent of the future, as well as those whose careers are more established. The salary proxy in the current system for non-EEA migrants is not applicable for many jobs and does not recognise skill specialisms.
- It must be favourable towards international students who wish to study in the UK.
The MAC report made a number of recommendations, including that the current system for non-EEA nationals be extended to EEA nationals, creating a single system following Brexit. If this were to happen, some amendments would be essential for such a system to function for UK science.
The MAC recommended that the current cap on Tier 2 (General) workers be scrapped, that the bureaucracy of the system be reduced and that the range of jobs permitted be expanded to include medium-skilled roles. We believe these would be essential steps to creating a system workable for all migrants and for UK science.
However, while the MAC report also recommends that the current salary thresholds are maintained (£30,000 for Tier 2 visas), we do not think this salary proxy is appropriate. This threshold is higher than that paid for some highly skilled early-career physics roles, such as specialist science technicians and postdoctoral researchers, and can exclude these people from coming to the UK. This is particularly concerning in cases where the cap on the number of Tier 2 visas has been reached, and applications from higher earners are given priority.
The recommendations from the MAC to regularly consult users of the visa system and to monitor migration policies are welcome, as these will help to develop a robust evidence base, which is essential for future policy.
In her Jodrell bank speech in May, Prime Minister Theresa May said that “the UK will always be open to the brightest and the best researchers to come and make their valued contribution”, and recognised the value of collaborations between UK-based scientists and colleagues in other EU countries. This is an important principle for UK physics, in which the migration of highly skilled workers and the mobility of UK researchers play significant roles in driving the UK’s world-leading research.
We await the full proposals in the forthcoming White Paper and Bill on post-Brexit immigration policy, and further details of the new science and innovation accord with the EU, and will engage with them to ensure the continued strength of UK science and research after the UK leaves the EU.
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