By Katherine Barnes, Science Writer
Backlash over the Government’s interim cap on non-EU migrants continued this week, with scientists and engineers from academia and industry criticising the scheme and warning of its impact on the economy. University leaders are now protesting against a “double whammy”, with impending cuts to the science budget and an immigration cap that limits their ability to bring in top talent from abroad.
The government’s temporary cap on migrants was imposed on 28 June, in order to prevent a sudden swell in visa applications before a more permanent limit is brought in next year, but the limit was based on the number of overseas staff recruited in 2009, in the depths of recession.
CaSE argues against cap
The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) argues that a cap could have devastating consequences for UK universities and industries, which may in turn hinder or stall the economic recovery. We are urging the Government to exclude scientists and engineers from the cap or to create a separate category to welcome them to work in the UK and support our future growth and wellbeing, as other countries, including the US and EU nations, already offer special entry routes to researchers.
“Over one in ten academic appointments in the UK are non-EU citizens – a figure that’s even higher in some science subjects – and businesses invest here, generating jobs, because they can also attract global talent”, says Imran Khan, the Director of CaSE. “A cap would have a disproportionate impact on economically important research and development, so we have a strategic decision to make on whether we want our universities and industries to be world class, or only decent.”
Elite sportspeople and financial investors are set to be excluded from the cap, because the Government recognises that would be significant contributors to the economy and not be a drain on public services. Scientists and engineers need to be similarly recognised as intellectual investors, improving the UK through their work. And elite scientists have long had a role to play in making the UK a global research hub – at the MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology, for instance, only five of the thirteen Nobel prizes received there went to British researchers. And there are readily available ways to define who is a scientist or engineer, whether that be through citation records or chartered status.
Khan adds that in 2008, there were more non-EU economic migrants leaving than arriving, according to official estimates. There has also been a decline in migration of skilled and highly skilled workers, according to the Office of National Statistics. Now limits on skilled migrants have been phased in, “the UK is in danger of seeing a ‘brain drain’”, he says. “The Government should be alarmed, instead of potentially exacerbating the problem.”
‘Significant pain’ to industry
A key factor for where to site R&D infrastructure is access to skilled workers, including being able to employ global talent. A 2008 survey from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found that larger UK firms look abroad to fill their vacancies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. John Cridland, deputy director-general of the CBI, said the interim cap was a “blunt instrument” that was causing “significant pain” to some large companies.
General Electric (GE) is just one of the many multinationals affected, with the development of a new £100 million offshore wind turbine now under threat because of the immigration cap. Speaking to the Independent, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said that GE is going to find it very difficult to fill some of the specialist jobs required for the project without bringing in experts from overseas.
James Dyson, engineer and entrepreneur, has also weighed in on the cap, in a Daily Mail piece addressing the shortage of home-grown engineering talent. “Building and nurturing a competitive home-grown workforce is paramount,” he says, “but turning away foreign talent risks limiting our ability to create world-beating technology in the future. Right now we need to attract and retain highly skilled scientists and engineers from abroad to fill our skills gaps. Otherwise, we’ll lose.”
Dyson argues that although he is always keen to recruit the brightest and best engineering talent from the UK, sometimes they have to look further afield to recruit specialists, and an immigration cap will make things harder. Comparing the situation with the US, he says they are much better equipped to put their talent to good use. “Between 1990 and 2005, immigrants started a quarter of the new venture-backed public companies. And more than half of the high-tech firms in Silicon Valley had at least one immigrant founder. We’re missing a trick.”
Last Thursday the car industry joined the chorus of negative reaction to the new policy, and its inclusion of international transfers within the same company. Paul Everitt, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), has written to Damian Green, the immigration minister, expressing his concerns saying that the inclusion of intra-company transfers could “impact on the attractiveness of the UK as a location for inward investment and undermine the UK’s role in an increasingly global economy.”
Business Secretary Vince Cable has been struggling to rationalize the cap in the face of outcry from many top executives. Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme last week, Cable said Britain was “open for business” but that the Government would need to implement a “flexible system that serves the interests of the British economy.”
Universities protest ‘double whammy’
The immigration cap is also having a negative effect on British universities, as they depend on international recruitment to employ the best researchers and lecturers. Professor Malcolm Grant, President and Provost of University College London, said at a press briefing on Friday that the combined whammy of a reduction in public support for science, and negativity about visas could “undercut and destroy a highly successful area that makes important contributions to the economy.” He added that the two major concerns were “the effect on recruitment of high-quality students, and the message sent about the UK as a destination for world class talent.”
Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society also spoke at the press conference, saying: “This is an aggravation at a time when we have other significant pressures. It is very important for the country generally that this unforeseen consequence of the immigration cap should be addressed.”
According to HESA, in 2007/08, 10.5% of all academic staff were non-EU nationals. UK universities also increasingly rely on the £5bn income received from international activities, including over £1.5bn in fees. In 2008/09, 97,000 non-EU students took science and related subjects, many of them attracted to the UK as an opportunity to stay on and work after graduating. Restricting this may reduce the numbers of students and the benefits that the UK can gain from their skills in the workforce.
Dr Julian Huppert MP, who is a former researcher himself, has worked with CaSE in protesting against the cap. He says it would be very worrying if Britain “risked losing some of the brightest and the best from around the world, when we should be trying to attract them to this country.” He adds that people are sensitive not only to what the rules are, but also to how welcome they are made to feel. “We should not short-change the economy.”