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An immigration system that supports research and innovation

11 Jan 2017

Resource overview

Purpose of this briefing

This briefing has been developed and written, with substantial input from CaSE, by a research sector group on immigration. It sets out shared principles, priorities and underpinning evidence for a future immigration system that supports a thriving research and innovation base in the UK. It aims to support organisations preparing their own positions and foster a joined-up voice from the sector on immigration. 

A future immigration system

The Prime Minister has said the Government is committed to “ensuring a positive outcome for UK science as we exit the European Union[1]” and aspires for the UK to be “the global go-to nation for scientists, innovators and tech investors[2]”. Government statements, immigration policy and negotiating positions must reflect and support this ambition.

We would like to ensure that the UK remains open and welcoming to researchers, innovators and specialist technicians. In the short-term, we support the recent call by the Science and Technology Committee to exempt EU researchers already working in the UK from immigration controls[3]. In the long-term, companies, universities, charities and research institutes alike see the implementation of a fit for purpose immigration system as an essential pillar of securing a positive outcome for science.

Any future immigration system must support the retention, access and movement of those who lead, undertake and support research and innovation including:

  • Highly skilled people – e.g. researchers, engineers, academics, business founders (characteristics include PhD level roles, Chartered Engineer status)
  • Specialist technicians – e.g. data analysts, cell culture specialists, AI experts
  • Students – including undergraduate, postgraduate taught and PhD students
  • Dependants of these individuals

The following types of movement are essential to research and innovation in the UK:

Long-term migration with routes to residency

  • Recruitment to advertised posts – initiated by the employer i.e The strongest candidate is selected, irrespective of nationality)
  • Relocation of research and innovation talent to the UK – initiated by the individual e.g. named holders of research grants or recognised fellowships, investors, business founders, those with skills in short supply

Temporary migration after which the individual will return to their home country

  • Short visits (up to 6 months) e.g. visit a collaborator, give a lecture, sit on an interview panel
  • Temporary work (1-2 years) e.g. secondments, placements, training, co-location for collaboration, use of a UK-based facility, staff exchange, addressing an urgent research issue (e.g. disease outbreak)
  • Formal study in approved education establishments with options for remaining in the UK
  • Intercompany transfers

To support science and innovation in all its settings, a future immigration system must be fair, fast, transparent and efficient including:

  • Simple and proportionate administrative principles and processes for individuals and employers
  • Clear guidance on eligibility and use of the system
  • Minimal bureaucracy and cost, with efficient and reliable processing of applications
  • Reliable and transparent reporting of migrant numbers and characteristics

Supporting evidence

Value of science and innovation

The fruits of research and innovation enrich all our lives in countless ways. Nurturing a strong science base is vital for preparing the nation for future challenges, from climate change, food security and future cities, to antimicrobial resistance, national security and meeting the needs of an ageing population. R&D and human capital are universal drivers of productivity[4] and a wide range of industries, from manufacturing and agriculture to digital technology, rely on research to innovate, grow, and create high-value jobs.

  • Every £1 invested by Government in the UK research base leads to an estimated lifetime return to the UK economy of around £7.20[5]
  • In 2015/16 Government invested £5.86bn through the science budget[6], leading to a lifetime net present value of £42bn additional GDP for the UK economy[7]
  • The R&D-intensive aerospace and pharmaceutical industries generated a trade surplus of more than £5bn and £3bn, respectively, in 2013[8]
  • The higher education sector generated more than £73bn of output and contributed 2.8% of UK GDP in 2011/12
  • The UK digital sector employs 1.6m people, is growing at 25% per year and contributes 10.4% of GDP – timely access to global talent is identified as key to supporting this growth[9]

Value of immigration

To the UK:

  • There is no evidence of migrants being used to undercut wages in skilled occupations, except in the public sector. Instead there is a migrant premium[10]
  • 51% of EEA+ nationals in the UK are employees and 9% are self-employed. 4% are students, 7% retired and 17% aged under 16. Just 3% are unemployed[11]
  • The evidence suggests that the fiscal impact of migration in the UK is small (less than +/-1% of GDP) and differs by migrant group (e.g. EEA migrants vs non-EEA migrants, recent migrants vs all migrants)[12]
  • International students are a major UK export, worth £10.7bn to the UK economy[13]
  • EU students at UK universities contribute £3.7bn to the UK economy each year and support around 34,000 jobs[14]

To science and innovation:

The UK’s science and innovation system is hampered by weaknesses in its STEM talent base[15]. Government, research funders and employers in our sector assess skills shortages regularly[16] and are committed to domestic skills development. Alongside this, access to global talent is also essential.

  • Among engineering, science, and hi-tech firms, nearly half (44%) report difficulties in finding experienced recruits with the right STEM skills, particularly high-level STEM skills[17]
  • 75% of roles Home Office’s Shortage Occupation List are in STEM[18]
  • Failure to meet demand for engineering skills alone is estimated to cost the UK £27bn a year from 2022[19]

Research is international and intrinsically collaborative. Scientific breakthroughs are not developed in isolation – mobility is crucial to the highest standards of performance. Easy movement of researchers, innovators and specialist technicians gives the UK a competitive advantage by opening up access to skills and international networks.

  • International movement is a feature of researchers’ careers – 72% of UK-based researchers[20] spent time at non-UK institutions between 1996 and 2012[21]
  • 27.7% of academic staff at universities are from outside the UK – 31,600 from other EU nations and 23,000 non-EU internationals[22]
  • Engineering and technology (40%) and biological, mathematical and physical sciences (37%) have the highest share of international academics[23]

Public opinion

International students:

  • A majority of British adults would like to maintain (44%) or increase (18%) the number of international students in the UK
  • 53% say that if the UK adopted a policy to help boost growth by increasing the number of international students coming to their country, they would support this policy
  • 70% say it is better if they use their skills here and work in the UK for a period of time after graduation in order to contribute to the economy rather than returning immediately to their home country
  • A minority consider international students (24%) or EU students (23%) coming to study at a UK university as immigrants[24]
  • A different poll showed similar support with 78% of the public wanting to see international student numbers increase or stay the same and only a fifth of the public think of students as immigrants[25]

Skilled migrants:

  • 88% of the public supported maintained (42%) or increased (46%) migration of highly skilled workers – only 12% wanted a reduction[26]
  • These proportions are highly similar between those who voted leave and those who voted remain in the referendum.
  • 80% of agree that science will make people’s lives easier, and 90% believe that scientists and engineers make a valuable contribution to society[27]
  • Public value of science extends to giving – medical research is the UK’s favourite charitable cause, with 7.6m people donating in a typical month[28]      




[4] “On the Robustness of R&D” , Kul, Khan and Theodorodis, Journal of Productivity Analysis, vol. 42 (2014), 137-155

[5] Using BIS Science and Research Net Present Value appraisal methodology developed for Spending Review 2015.

[6] The Allocation of Science and Research Funding 2015/16.

[7] Note that the impacts of research investment take place over a long periods so this refers to the cumulative benefits accruing over time from one year’s investment.

[8] Immigration: Keeping the UK at the heart of global science and engineering, CaSE (2016)

[9] Tech Nation 2016, Tech City UK

[10] (2015)






[16] UKCES Reviewing the Requirement for High level STEM skills BBSRC and MRC Review of Vulnerable Skills and Capabilities


[18]  Shortage Occupation List 2015

[20] Includes UK and non-UK nationals – only published researchers from academia and industry were analysed

[21] Elsevier, International comparative performance of the UK research base, 2013

[22] Staff by geographic region of nationality, HESA 2014/15

[23] Nationality academic staff by cost centre group, HESA 2014/15

[24] Universities UK poll conducted by ComRes, October 2016

[25] British Future, What next after Brexit? (2016)

[26]  British Future, What next after Brexit? (2016)