The UK Border at Heathrow Airport.

Immigration was a hot topic throughout the election campaign, and since the new government took office it has remained high on the agenda. The free movement of researchers, students and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)-skilled workers across borders is fundamental to the global business of science. Developments in UK immigration policy over the past month—as well as changes that might be on the horizon—therefore deserve some closer inspection.

Migration of scientists

At last count, 26% of the academic workforce and 19% of students in UK universities were non-UK nationals; the UK’s excellent science base is truly international, and has been built over decades of migration to the UK. During the last Parliament, non-EU immigration to the UK was capped, but PhD-level positions were prioritised relative to some other skilled workers within this. The current system has its critics, but the available data doesn’t indicate that there has been a downturn in the number of STEM-skilled workers coming to work in UK academia and industry.

New government, new controls

The Conservatives have made no secret of their aim to reduce net migration to the UK “from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands”, and since the election David Cameron has announced an Immigration Bill in the Queen’s speech and set up an Immigration Taskforce to help them achieve this. As the details of their approach become clearer we can assess what this might mean for science.

Reducing the numbers of skilled migrants

David Cameron has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to look at ways to limit the number of skilled workers coming to the UK from outside the EU. This might include putting a time limit on roles on the Shortage Occupation List—which includes science and maths teachers and several other STEM-skilled jobs—for which it is easier to recruit from overseas. Adding a time limit would aim to stimulate the training of home-grown workers for these jobs, but for sectors with systemic shortages, it could be difficult to train up sufficient numbers quickly enough.

International students

The government’s net migration target could also put pressure on the number of international students who migrate to the UK each year. As students are temporary migrants, many have argued that they should not count towards net migration figures, but the Conservative Party have not accepted this approach. However, the new Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson MP, has spoken publicly, before and after the election, about the positive contribution that international students make to the UK and the economic value of higher education as an export market.

Breaching the cap for Tier 2 visas

The Tier 2 visa route is used by the bulk of skilled workers, including scientists, coming to the UK. In 2011, an annual limit of 20,700 visas was set for the route and the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) route, which some scientists can also use, was created. The number of Tier 2 visas issued has been creeping up over the last year and demand outstripped supply for the first time last month. PhD-level positions are prioritised so they are unlikely to have been affected so far, but with little chance of the Government increasing the cap on this route, this another policy frontier to watch.

Freedom of movement within Europe

EU citizens are of course exempt from all of the above controls, as they have the right to live and work in the UK; 15% of the academic workforce in UK universities are EU nationals. With an EU Referendum now confirmed to take place by 2017, a question mark hangs over the right of these workers to come to the UK in future. The effects of a change to this policy on the UK science base are difficult to estimate.

Keeping the doors open

In 2015, monitoring UK immigration policy means keeping a watchful eye on several fronts. Continuing pressure on the existing visa limit, any new measures to control skilled migration or changes to the UK’s relationship with Europe could have implications for the UK’s scientific workforce. The Society made a clear case for the protection of visa routes for scientists when the immigration system was reformed early in the last Parliament, and will be making this case to the new Government too.