Under Home Office proposals, the points system for Tier 2 (skilled work) visas will be overhauled to prioritise PhD-level occupations with domestic shortages, including research and higher education teaching positions.
The changes, which, subject to parliamentary approval, will be introduced on 6 April, will mean that applicants with PhDs or equivalent-level job offers will be prioritised over applicants for lower-level jobs, even if they command much higher salaries.
But unlike sportspeople, ministers of religion and people earning more than £150,000 a year, academics will not be exempt from the overall annual cap of 20,700 Tier 2 entries.
This means that universities will have to apply to the UK Border Agency for permission to recruit each non-European Union applicant.
Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said the new rules represented an important victory for campaigners who had long argued that the UK’s international standing in science and engineering was dependent on its ability to attract global talent.
“For a long time now, the visa-allocation system has rewarded wealthy investors and Premier League footballers, and discriminated against top scientists and engineers: it is great to see this finally being addressed,” he said.
“While we still disagree that a cap on scientists and engineers is something the government should have at all, these proposals should mean that the UK can continue to work with the globalised world of research.”
Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, said he “strongly welcomed” the revisions, but added that they should only be regarded as a first step.
“Alongside the US, British universities the global leaders in academic research. To continue to succeed, our universities need to be able to continue to recruit in all disciplines from a global talent pool building upon our deep and longstanding collaborations with foreign organisations, our overseas campuses and international research leaders from philosophy, to history to business to law and medicine,” he said.