The Government's new points system for immigration could seriously hamper attempts to recruit academics from abroad, university heads have warned.
The Home Office this week announced its new scheme for categorising workers who want to come to the UK from outside the European Union.
Although Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, said the scheme would make it easier for highly skilled young workers to enter the country, vice-chancellors said there were questions about how it would affect academia.
Diana Green, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and a member of the Universities UK international strategy group, said: "One of the logical expectations is that universities will want to internationalise over the next five or ten years. We are concerned that there shouldn't be a system that is so bureaucratic that we have trouble recruiting staff."
As in similar schemes in Australia and the US, an individual would need a certain number of points to be considered for a UK work visa. Points would be based on aptitude, age, experience and the level of need in each sector.
The Home Office has specified that "highly skilled workers", including doctors, engineers and information technology experts, would be awarded the most points. But it is not yet clear if academics will qualify for this top fast-track tier, or for the tier below, described as "workers with qualifications".
Professor Green said: "We have a worry that academics will be placed in the second category and it will become harder to manage and we will lose good people."
Bob Boucher, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University, said: "We are concerned that the top tier might veer towards higher earners."
He added: "The most important thing is that when one is trying to attract people to a post the obstacles must not be such that they feel it is not worth bothering."
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: "The expectation (and intention) is that the best academics will comfortably sit within tier one of the new system."
Writing in The Times Higher , Mr Clarke says that the system will not compromise the recruitment of international students.
But UUK said this week that it remained deeply opposed to plans to abolish the right of appeal for prospective students who have applied for visas as part of the Immigration Asylum and Nationality Bill. The Bill receives its third reading in the House of Lords next week, but vice-chancellors are not confident of a last-minute change.
Professor Boucher said: "There is a human rights issue here. Something that will have such a strong impact on someone's destiny should not be irrevocably in the hands of one person."
The Home Office spokesperson said: "The appeals system outlined in the five-year strategy made clear that entry to the UK as a student or a worker is a privilege, not a right."