The UK government should back the public by welcoming skilled migration

The UK needs an immigration system that doesn’t discriminate against the salary of international academics and university staff, says Alistair Jarvis 

December 10, 2019
Source: istock

UK universities are internationally renowned as leading lights of innovative academic research and high-quality teaching. This reputation is well deserved, but it is also at risk.

The Migration Advisory Committee is currently exploring a points-based immigration system and a salary threshold for international staff, which, had it been in place previously, we know from our 136 university members would have meant some of their most celebrated scientists and other academics would not have been able to begin their careers in the UK.

Equally, current and future assistants, technicians and researchers who work on life-changing research making a huge contribution to society may not meet this unnecessarily high threshold at the early stage of their careers. They could face the prospect of having to leave the UK, taking their valuable skills elsewhere.

The UK needs to attract talent to maintain its place on the global stage following Brexit. At a time when much of the political rhetoric is focused on how people want to see less immigration to the UK, we commissioned Savanta ComRes to ask the British public about their views and discovered an overwhelmingly positive response when it came to attracting international staff to our world-leading universities. The British public agree that we need to attract scientists, academics and their support staff to the UK and compete with other nations on science and research. They believe that the primary qualifying factor for these people should be the skills they bring with them.

Four in five British adults agree that the UK’s immigration system should allow scientists, academics and their support staff to work in the UK at any stage of their careers. Nine in 10 British adults feel that international scientists, academics and support staff are valuable to the UK, and 82 per cent want the UK to be competing with other major economies to attract these staff into the UK.

People were even willing to rewrite the immigration system for university staff, with seven in 10 agreeing that a points-based system should be arranged so that scientists, academics and support staff score highly.

This research demonstrates how strongly the British public believe that we should welcome talented international staff from all over the world to excel in their careers here.

The polling shows that the public do not believe salary level is the most important criterion for admitting international staff to work in the UK – but being highly skilled is. In fact, only 3 per cent of British adults thought it was better to attract staff who are highly paid instead of highly skilled.

While the public views on immigration need to be heard, so do the stories of the talented international staff that we need in the UK. We should recognise those who have contributed to award-winning work that helps us live longer and healthier lives, as well as those who started their careers in the UK and are now at the height of their academic careers. We will be sharing stories of individuals who are helping society to overcome the challenges of climate change; using theatre to support war veterans and ensuring that autonomous vehicles are safely on our roads by 2021, to name but a few.

Many of our current international staff would not have chosen the UK to further their careers had this proposed threshold been in place, and the loss would most definitely be ours.

We need a more nuanced approach. If a new immigration system were to have a salary threshold, it should be set no higher than £21,000 rather than the proposed £30,000, to allow recruitment for most technician and language assistant roles in the higher education sector. These individuals will then be able to reach their full potential in the UK, for the benefit of us all. If we want our universities to continue with their life-changing work, then we need them to have the best staff at every level.

 Alistair Jarvis is chief executive of Universities UK

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