The UK Border at Heathrow Airport

The UK Border at Heathrow Airport. Photo credit Danny Howard CC-BY-2.0

I recently attended a seminar held by Fragomen, an international law firm, entitled ‘UK Election 2015 and Skilled Migration: What should the next government do for business, tech, science and the arts?’ Professor Geoffrey Boulton FRS spoke at the event as a representative of the Royal Society and member of the scientific community.

The event aimed to raise awareness of immigration policy issues, with a focus on helping people to understand how the immigration system can better serve and facilitate the entry of skilled workers. The event brought together an esteemed panel from across the business, technology, science and arts sectors. Chaired by Ian Robinson, Senior Manager at Fragomen, the panel included Mark Boleat, Chair for the Policy and Resources Committee at the City of London, voice for the arts Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Gerwyn Davies, Labour Market Advisor at CIPD, Guy Levin, Executive Director at Coadec and Professor Geoffrey Boulton.

In the run up to the 2015 General Election immigration remains a core issue for almost all the political parties, which is perhaps unsurprising in the wake of austerity measures; discontent with the EU and the rise of parties such as UKIP. It is a contentious issue, and divides public opinion and parties, alike.

Public attitudes to immigration

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director at IPSOS MORI, gave an engaging talk on the public perception of immigration. It was clear from the talk that there are many misperceptions among the UK public about immigration. It seems the UK public are rather shaky on their immigration figures, particularly when it comes to estimating the number of asylum seekers and non-EU students entering the UK. For example, when asked about the proportion of immigrants that people though were asylum-seekers, the average estimate was 21% of immigrants, which is three times the actual proportion.

IPSOS MORI reckons these misperceptions are linked to a combination of factors ranging from media influence, to fears about job security and exploitation of benefits. But it was evident from the seminar that there is a real need to separate fact from fiction. With immigration statistics and policy often littered across party pledges, it can be difficult to identify the real trends and issues.

Science and research

Many of the speakers stressed that current restrictions to immigration make it difficult for exceptionally talented individuals to forge a career in the UK. These restrictions can create difficulty for individuals across the arts and science sectors, and several members of the panel gave accounts of witnessing this difficulty within their professions. There was also some discussion of whether the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa route could be improved. The Royal Society acts as a designated competent body, peer reviewing applications from scientists for these visas, but application numbers are quite low.

Professor Boulton highlighted issues surrounding the abolition of the post-study work visa route, which was closed in the UK in 2012. He emphasised the value of using the bank of postgraduate students that have completed their studies in the UK, rather than sending them back to their home country. The abolition of the post-study work visa is thought to be part of the reason for the recent fall in the number of international students coming to the UK. He went on to stress that science is of great value to the UK’s economy and society, and that the UK should be making full use of the global pool of talent on offer.

In spite of some issues with the visa system, skilled migrant workers within the business, technology, arts and science continue to immigrate to the UK. However, negative rhetoric from the Government may be damaging to the UK’s ability to attract the brightest minds. For example, with countries such as Australia and Germany strengthening their efforts to attract international students, the UK may be missing out on a golden opportunity.

My colleague’s blog post on international students looks in detail at these issues and the economic benefit that international students bring to the UK.

Looking forward….

The panel were largely in agreement that there is room for improvement within the existing visa system for skilled workers from outside the UK. In our joint academies statement, ‘Building a Stronger Future’, we called on future government to ‘encourage valuable immigration and minimise unnecessary barriers to the flow of talented researchers and students.’ With the recent release of the party manifestos, we have been keeping a close eye on how they compare with our joint statement. Following the General Election on 7 May, it is likely that there will changes to immigration policy, and we will be interested to see whether the new government will take on board the Society’s recommendation.