UK sector leaders are to lobby the government to scrap the minimum salary threshold that skilled workers must earn in order to secure a visa, after the immigration White Paper rowed back on plans to set the limit at £30,000.
In the White Paper, the government says that its Migration Advisory Committee had recommended applying the existing £30,000 salary threshold for Tier 2 skilled worker visas to applicants from the European Union after Brexit. However, the document adds that ministers “will engage businesses and employers as to what salary threshold should be set”.
This has been seen as a sign of Cabinet opposition to prime minister Theresa May’s preference for the existing threshold, with reports indicating that many ministers would prefer it to be set at £21,000.
University leaders are hoping to seize this as an opportunity to push for the threshold to be scrapped altogether, having widely condemned the £30,000 figure as being too high. They say that it would make it much harder for institutions to recruit the technicians and early career researchers whom they desperately need.
The Campaign for Science and Engineering has estimated that half of research technicians currently able to come to the UK under free movement rules would not meet the £30,000 threshold.
Universities UK would be lobbying ministers and MPs and highlighting the “damaging skills shortages that would be created if this becomes policy”, said Alistair Jarvis, its chief executive.
“Given these are valuable, skilled workers who make a major contribution to our universities and economy, I think the case for a threshold is weak,” Mr Jarvis said.
However, if there were to be a threshold, a figure of “around £20,000 would be less problematic”, Mr Jarvis added.
Adam Haxell, senior parliamentary officer at the MillionPlus group of universities, agreed that a lower figure would be better. However, he cautioned that even £21,000 could still pose challenges for some institutions, as salaries varied across the regions.
“The problem is if you put a too high a figure on it, all that happens is you suck people to London where salaries are higher, and people in the north east, north west and Scotland lose out,” he said. “The whole industrial strategy and ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda would be really undermined by an arbitrary cap.”
Naomi Weir, deputy director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, added that it was “disappointing” that the paper had not moved away from the blunt use of salary thresholds when talking about skills.
One option would be to specify occupations that would have a lower salary threshold, but that would be “exceptionally inflexible, slow and retrospective”, she said.
Mr Haxell added that the Home Office had been in touch with the mission group and had made it clear that the salary threshold was open to discussion. “This is positive, and it will be up to us to do research and bring it to them. It’s something the sector needs to come together and lobby [on] as one, as it is an issue that affects everyone,” he said.
Ms Weir said that shifting political sands could change the debate on salary thresholds too. “The current prime minister has an exceptionally strong view on immigration, but following a 12-month consultation period we could be in very different political times,” she added.