The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) published two reports this month. The first looked at the economic impact of international students studying in the UK. The second weighed the evidence on migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) who work in the UK.

This article offers an overview of the findings and what they mean for science and innovation.

The politics

To give some background, the MAC is an independent body that advises the UK government on its approach to visas and immigration. It does not make policy but plays a role in shaping it. In this case, the Home Office asked the MAC to gather and present the evidence on international students and migrant workers as the UK initiates its withdrawal from the EU.

What happens next is out of the MAC’s hands. We know that Brexit raises questions about the future status of EEA migrants who can study and work in the UK without a visa under free movement rules. What we don’t know is the outcome of the Brexit negotiations or the approach to EEA and non-EEA immigration that the UK will ultimately favour.

The MAC therefore gives us a sense of what could happen but not much else. More will be revealed in subsequent weeks when the government responds to the recommendations and outlines its vision for the future.

The Royal Society view

The Royal Society has a longstanding interest in migration policy and will be following these events closely. Science is and always has been global, with more than half of the UK’s research output the result of international collaboration.

The ability of researchers to move freely between countries, whether on a short-term basis or for long-term employment, is critical to this endeavour and is of course dependent on governments taking a favourable view of migration.

The positive impact of immigration

The benefits of inward mobility are clearly evidenced by the MAC and were emphasised in the Society’s contribution (PDF) to the calls for evidence. The publication on EEA workers finds that migrants have little or no impact on public services and employment outcomes among the UK population. It also shows a positive impact on government finances and productivity.

Similarly, the international students report highlights the strengths of UK higher education as a major export industry. It finds that students from other countries make a positive contribution to public finances and the viability of courses.

The MAC’s general principle is that policy should make it easier for higher skilled migrants to come to the UK. This will be welcomed by the science community in general and by individual researchers pursuing scientific excellence.

A survey (PDF) by the national academies in 2017 found that 91% of fellows and grant holders see mobility as very important to their careers.

Immigration and innovation

The EEA workers report studies the impact of higher skilled immigrants on innovation in the UK, citing the disproportionate numbers in “STEM focused PhD programmes and other research positions”. The main finding is that migrants make a positive contribution to levels of innovation in the receiving country.

This is an important message in the context of the Industrial Strategy. If the government is to meet its R&D investment target of 2.4% of UK GDP by 2027, it will need to increase the volume of basic, applied and experimental R&D being undertaken in the UK. The evidence suggests that retaining and attracting researchers from other countries is likely to be part of the answer and is highlighted as such in the national academies’ R&D work (PDF).

As it stands, nearly half of the UK’s engineering, science and hi-tech firms report difficulties (PDF) in attracting experienced recruits with the right STEM skills.

No preferential treatment for EEA citizens?

While the MAC tries to steer clear of Brexit, it does offer a view on what should happen if the UK decides its future immigration system in isolation from the negotiations. Its suggestion is that there should be no special treatment for EEA citizens and a similar line is now emerging from UK Cabinet discussions.

This will raise questions. The Society’s evidence submission noted a particular reliance on EEA workers in UK higher education (they make up 17% of all academic staff) and research infrastructures (where the figure is even higher at 23%) and the current right to free movement is clearly an enabler.

We showed more recently (PDF) that the cost of obtaining a UK visa is substantial. An academic with a family on a three year Tier 2 visa – the route that most non-EEA scientists and engineers come in on – is liable to pay upfront Home Office fees and other charges equivalent to 11% of their annual salary.

A restrictive stance on EEA migration could also come into conflict with participation in EU programmes though this is not a given in the context of the UK’s future relationship with Europe. As the MAC suggests, the question is inextricably tied to Brexit.

Reforming the visa system

If the UK does end up with more control over immigration, it will have to revisit its approach to visas. The MAC is clear on the limitations of the current system, which was set up to manage non-EEA migration only, and makes a number of recommendations to improve it.

Proposals in the EEA workers report include abolishing the Tier 2 (General) numbers cap and resident labour market test and widening the range of jobs permitted.

The international students report meanwhile suggests sweeping changes to post-study work and the ability to switch between Tier 4 (Student) and Tier 2.

The proposal that PhD students should automatically be given a year’s leave to remain after completing their studies speaks to the importance of international postgrads and postdocs to the UK research environment – with more than two-fifths of current PhDs coming from overseas.

Taken together, these recommendations are intended to make it simpler and more attractive for higher-skilled migrants to work or study in the UK. They nevertheless have to be viewed in the context of much higher user numbers when (or if) EEA migration is brought either fully or partially in line with non-EEA migration and the cost to individuals of acquiring a visa.

The Society has an established position on future immigration policy but recognises that it will take time for any new measures to be implemented. Our regularly updated Brexit Q&As warns against “discontinuity in the immigration system that would significantly disrupt the mobility of researchers as the UK passes through the final stages of exiting the EU”.

What next?

Rumour has it the Prime Minister will use her party conference speech in October to address the immigration question. This is expected to be followed by a white paper and draft legislation later in the autumn. The Labour party has recently published its own immigration proposals.

Consistent with previous Royal Society work, we will be making the case that short- and long-term mobility of highly-skilled people is fundamental to the practice of science and must be supported by government policy.

Whatever the outcome of Brexit, we need to create the lowest possible barriers to practising scientists seeking to move across borders.

Find out more about the Royal Society’s work on Brexit and UK science.