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An immigration system that works for science and engineering

14 Mar 2018

James Tooze digs into some of the key actions for Government set out in our immigration policy review

Today we have published our immigration policy review. The review makes a series of recommendations for Government, both to rebuild confidence in immigration policy in the short term and to create a streamlined immigration system in the long term. Our recommendations come as a result of continuing engagement with our members, synthesis of existing evidence on immigration in the UK and with an understanding of the pressures faced by Government. The review outlines what science and engineering needs from an immigration system. We hope that the document informs political debates and decisions over the coming months, a period that will see important decisions on immigration being made.

The Government cap on ‘brightest and best’

Recent months have seen the monthly cap on skilled migration from outside the EU being exceeded, meaning workers preparing to move to the UK to work were being refused visas.

The roles that these individuals were coming to take up are required to be advertised by employers for 28 days in the UK, with proof that nobody from the UK or the EU was suitably qualified to take the job. In order to be eligible for a Tier 2 visa, the job advertised must be a graduate level role and satisfy a minimum salary threshold, a figure that varies between professions. It is beyond doubt that those granted a Tier 2 visa would be vital for UK employers, and would contribute to the UK economy.

We wrote to the Prime Minister calling for the removal of Shortage Occupation and PhD-level roles from the Tier 2 (General) visa cap. We repeat the call in our policy review and in the long term we call for the abolition of the cap entirely. For a Government that has consistently talked about welcoming the ‘brightest and best’, will they realise that capping the number of skilled workers to fill business-critical roles is a rejection of those they seek to attract to the UK?

Borderless science

It is no secret that the UK has benefited from the freedom of movement of scientists and engineers from the EU. Britain was the single largest destination for Marie Sklodowska-Curie Action fellowships during FP7, and statistics show that 72% of UK-based researchers were internationally mobile between 1996 – 2015. Data also shows that research conducted in an internationally collaborative way has a higher average impact that UK-only research.

Following the 2016 referendum, mobility has been sighted as the key issue for the future of science and engineering in the UK. Throughout consultations with our members we have heard this message, that good research cannot be done without the right people and the right access to people across the globe. We are calling for an immigration system that supports research and innovation, including the frictionless movement of scientists and engineers, not just in Europe but throughout the world.

Nuanced debate is needed

The referendum on EU membership was presented as the ultimate black and white question, do we wish to remain inside or leave the EU. For the past few years, immigration has been viewed in the same way by the Government, by targeting a restriction in overall migrant numbers. These two issues clearly have the same thing in common in their levels of complexity, as seen in the unravelling of pertinent individual issues over Brexit. Continuing to think of immigration in this singly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ manner will only serve to make the debate more polarized and more harmful to the UK’s ability to continue to attract people to work and live here.

The Government have rightly commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to understand how migration can support a modern industrial strategy and they are also looking at student migration. Our policy review calls for a future immigration system that is proportionate to risk, benefit and labour market demands by being founded on robust evidence, analysing migration flows and the economic contribution of migration to the UK. This will allow the UK to have a fair and flexible view on immigration, while avoiding arbitrary numerical targets that are indiscriminate to different types of migration.

The MAC won’t report until September. In the short term, the Government needs to engage with the public and an array of stakeholders on immigration and take the lead on using evidence well in all their positions, policies and messages on migration.

We will continue to work and campaign in this space to press for a migration system that supports a thriving science and engineering sector. This policy review gives our concrete recommendations for Government on immigration, and will help us to hold the Government to account on the development of immigration policy pre and post-Brexit that works for research and innovation.