Visa curbs putting best scientists beyond reach, warn universities

Britain’s top universities are struggling to recruit the best scientists from overseas because of a severe reduction in their visa quota by the Home Office.

Under the Government’s interim immigration cap, Russell Group institutions, including Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London, are facing a 15 per cent cut in the number of academics they are able to sponsor, a Times investigation has found.

The severe clampdown runs contrary to government assurances that the cap would not impair Britain’s ability to attract the brightest and best workers from overseas.

The chief concern is that unless scientists and engineers are exempted, in a similar fashion to footballers and ministers of religion, universities and technology companies will be unable to fill key posts with the best candidates.

Scientists are also worried that the cap will limit their ability to collaborate with international colleagues, particularly those from the US, China, India and Russia, who could be stopped from taking secondments and sabbaticals.

“Visa issues and bureaucracy deeply affect our ability to compete in the global market for academic talent,” Wendy Piatt, Director-General of the Russell Group, said. “Changes which make the visa regime stricter can severely diminish the international attractiveness of a nation’s universities.”

The UK Border Agency has given each university a quota on recruitment from non-EU countries under Tier 2 of the points-based immigration system, which covers “skilled workers”. The quotas cover new visas — and renewals for existing staff — between July 19 this year and March 31, 2011, when the permanent cap will be imposed. All but two of the twenty Russell Group institutions confirmed that they were facing a 15 per cent cut on their quotas. Newcastle University faces a 50 per cent cut and the University of Manchester has not been allocated its quota.

“We have made the point to the UKBA that this unfairly disadvantages those who have a stronger reliance on the need to attract international talent and we hope that this will not be replicated when the permanent cap is brought in,” said a UCL spokeswoman.

Russell Group universities, where about 32 per cent of academics come from outside Britain, are trying to bridge the gap by recruiting under Tier 1, which covers “highly skilled workers”. However, the number allocated is subject to a monthly national cap of 600 visas and a backlog of applications is accumulating.

The threshold for October was reached last week, meaning no more Tier 1 visas will be issued until November 1.

The current points-based system of immigration also presents the problem that salary, not expertise, is highly rewarded, meaning that some of the best international researchers, who score highly on academic qualifications but poorly on salary, fail to gain enough points to pass the test.

“It’s ridiculous that scientists are being discriminated against by our visa system just because they prioritise chasing knowledge over chasing money,” said Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

The UKBA’s consultation on the permanent cap, which closed last month, has caused further alarm among universities by suggesting that Tier 2 visas could be closed to them.

The consultation document notes that there is a “strong case” for granting Tier 2 visas only to migrants with skills that are in “national shortage”.

Damian Green, the Immigration Minister, said: “Britain remains open for business and we will continue to attract the brightest and the best people who can make a real difference to our economic growth, but unlimited migration places unacceptable pressure on public services.

“There will still be room for world-class academics and scientists but we will no longer admit migrants to do jobs that could be done by resident workers.”

British science has a long tradition of nurturing talent from overseas. Sir Ernest Rutherford, who split the atom, came from New Zealand, César Milstein, the pioneer of molecular biology, was Argentinian, and Sydney Brenner, a leading geneticist, is South African.

This article, published in The Times, was written with Hannah Devlin and Rebecca Hill

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