The next UK government must move quickly to introduce a “more liberal” visa system for highly skilled academics to prevent a flight of researchers after Brexit, according to a committee of MPs.
Highlighting how the UK’s exit from the European Union in 2019 was “likely to lead to a significant ‘brain drain’ in talented staff”, the report published by the House of Commons Education Committee states that urgent reforms after the general election on 8 June are needed to “facilitate, rather than inhibit, the movement of people in and out of our universities”.
“Otherwise, continued academic collaboration and the sector’s international competitiveness will be at risk,” adds the study, which considered evidence from about 40 universities as well as numerous expert witnesses.
It follows fears raised in the committee’s evidence hearings that the majority of the 32,000 or so non-UK EU nationals currently working in UK universities (about 16 per cent of all staff) would have failed to obtain a visa under the Tier 2 (skilled worker) route, which has an annual cap of 20,700 and a minimum salary requirement of £30,000.
Creating a simplified visa route for overseas academics must be a priority for any future administration, said Neil Carmichael, the committee’s chair, who called for a “bold cross-government strategy to take advantage of the global reach of our universities and ensure that higher education plays an important role in upcoming trade deals with the rest of the world”.
“As we leave the European Union, we now have the opportunity to reform our immigration system to ensure we reap the full rewards of the ability of our universities to attract the brightest and best students and staff from across the world,” he said, adding that the next government “must act urgently to…avert the risk of a damaging ‘brain drain’ of talent from our shores”.
Five vice-chancellors, numerous senior academics and even students on undergraduate politics classes gave their views on the potential effects of Brexit as part of the committee’s evidence-gathering.
The committee was told by the Russell Group how 26 per cent of its EU staff would fail to meet the Tier 2 salary requirement, while Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge, added that the Tier 2 route was “extremely cumbersome” and “highly labour-intensive for universities and colleges that have to administer it”.
“In an ideal world the preference for many of our witnesses would be for continued freedom of movement between UK and EU academics [but]…it is clear this is unlikely to continue,” the report says.
However, the current visa system which allows “academics to work across Europe together is a strong reason the UK punches above its weight in producing world-class research”, it adds.
To maintain this research strength, the committee recommends that the next government introduce an easier route than the Tier 2 visa for academics from across the globe to “show it is serious in its aim of bringing in the best people from around the world”.
This would include a “lower salary threshold and a separate, higher cap, as well as lower bureaucratic burdens and costs”, it says.
Future residency rights of EU citizens currently living in the UK must also be clarified, the committee adds, calling on the next government to “speedily resolve the issue of staff residency rights by unilaterally guaranteeing rights before the end of 2017”.
Other recommendations in the committee’s report include:
- A new regional growth fund to replace, and exceed, the investment from European structural funding, and to ensure that all regions benefit from this domestic funding
- A commitment to Horizon 2020 and future research frameworks to ensure continuing research collaboration with the EU, including a guarantee that research funds match EU funds if the UK cannot access these programmes
- Continued membership of the Erasmus+ student mobility programme, or, if this is not possible, the introduction of a home-grown replacement that promotes mobility, including mobility beyond Europe
- “Light-touch controls” over the movement of EU students, including “visa-free access, which would enable preservation of a system closely resembling freedom of movement”
- Representation of universities in negotiations over upcoming trade agreements with countries around the world to support institutions’ global ambitions.
Last week, the government guaranteed EU students the right to access loan funding if they began their course in 2018-19, fulfilling another recommendation of the report.
The committee also calls for the next government to remove overseas students from net migration targets, with reports indicating that the prime minister has softened her opposition to this move.