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Immigration Cap damages Universities

Foreign academics are working in key subject areas such as science, technology and engineering. The government’s policy objective of reducing net migration to “the tens of thousands” by the end of the current parliament could cause major problems for UK universities. It would also irreversibly damage the reputation of the UK overseas.

Our universities are the largest volume users of the immigration system, bringing in thousands of international staff, students and visitors every year – a fact often lost on policy-makers and commentators.

Over 10% of all our academic staff are non-EU nationals, and many are working in key subject areas such as science, technology and engineering. These highly skilled staff make up a core element of our workforce, and without them we would have to cut the provision of courses in areas of vital importance to the UK.

This would affect the opportunities for UK students wanting to study those subjects. And it’s not possible to substitute these academics for UK nationals: we simply are not producing enough graduates in these areas.

Unless we are able to bring in world-leading researchers, the extraordinary international quality of UK research will plummet.

World-class research requires world-class people, and we simply can’t adopt a fortress Britain attitude. In the university world, our competitors are watching and will be ready to attract international staff and students deterred by negative perceptions of the UK visa system.

As well as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the developing university systems in Singapore, China and India are competing with us for academic talent. They are not limiting their ability to recruit the top international staff.

The business secretary, Vince Cable, recognised this when he acknowledged that the government’s proposals could limit businesses and universities’ ability to attract “the brightest and the best” staff. The problem is that it doesn’t appear that the Home Office is listening to the business department.

“This looks like a double whammy of significant spending reduction and making it harder to recruit staff and students,” warns Professor Steve Smith, president of vice-chancellors’ umbrella group, Universities UK, and vice-chancellor of Exeter University. “In a sector that’s seeing 60% to 70% cuts in funding, this could be a serious blow to the UK market in the face of huge competition from other countries that are investing in higher education.”

According to Smith, several vice-chancellors are already having trouble renewing visas for existing staff. “But the big issue is the restriction on universities on the number of people they can hire,” he says. And the investment that competitor countries such as the US and China are putting into universities makes them more likely to poach staff at British universities. All of which amounts to a serious worry.

Top research institutions such as the London School of Economics fear for the quality of their academic base, which in turn could put off students and damage their world-leading position. “LSE competes for talent in a global market,” says Howard Davies, LSE’s director. “The market in disciplines such as accounting, economics, finance, management and law is already difficult and the government’s plan to restrict immigration would restrict the pool of talent from which we can draw.”

Like many institutions, the LSE has staff whose visas will run out before the permanent cap is imposed, and not being able to extend their visas would have a severe impact. Universities are allocated certificates of sponsorship, which they need to hire non-EU staff, and these have already been cut by up to 20%.

Three consultations on economic migration – by the UK Border Agency (looking at how a permanent limit on economic migration should be applied), the independent Migration Advisory Committee (determining what level of migration would be appropriate) and the Home Affairs select committee – are in progress. Final proposals are expected by the end of the year before a permanent cap comes into place from April 2011.

The government is also considering student immigration. According to Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at the UK Council for International Student Affairs, the government’s agenda is “confused”. “It’s perverse to say they want to cap the number of international students to deal with net migration, because students are only temporary migrants,” she explains. “Our competitor countries are trying hard to get these migrants to stay and contribute to their economy. We seem to have a much more equivocal view. The government could achieve a target, but it’s very short-sighted as it will have a massive impact on universities and the economy. The skilled migrants we really want will be turned off.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “We want to make sure that when the permanent cap is introduced next year, it is operated flexibly so that it does not act as a barrier to growth, while ensuring that it is effective in stopping uncontrolled immigration. The government recognises the importance of ensuring that the UK continues to be a world-leading place to do research.

“While it is good to have wide public debate about funding options, it is also important to be clear that the current system is no longer fit for purpose.”