Migration cap costs Britain the services of 233 top brains

More than 230 scientists and academics have been barred from Britain by the Government’s immigration cap, an investigation by The Times has revealed.

The quota of visas issued to 15 of the country’s leading research universities has been cut by 233 under the interim migrant limit imposed in July. The 21 per cent reduction is preventing the recruitment of professors and postdoctoral researchers from outside the European Economic Area.

The full impact of the cap has been greater still, because changes to a different class of visa often issued to scientists have made it almost impossible for young academics to qualify because their salaries are too low.

The figures, from 15 of the 20 members of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, show that the cap is already inflicting significant damage on science, despite assurances from the Government that it is not intended to prevent recruitment of “the brightest and the best”.

Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, said: “The interim visa cap is already affecting our ability to compete in the global market for academic talent. We are being held back at a time when our international rivals are welcoming the world’s brightest minds — including many from Britain — with open arms.

“We are particularly concerned about the potential impact on extremely promising academics at the start of their careers and our ability to nurture new talent.

“We would urge the Government to rethink its immigration policy urgently to maximise the UK’s ability to compete within the global economy.”

The evidence for the interim cap’s impact adds to growing pressure on ministers to exempt scientists and academics from the permanent limit that will replace it in April. The Home Office has indicated that it is examining ways of allowing elite researchers in, but no details have yet been decided.

Last month, eight Nobel laureates wrote to The Times to protest against the measure, and another Nobel prize-winner, the Indian-American Venki Ramakrishnan, said on Saturday that the cap would have jeopardised his own move to Britain 11 years ago.

The UK Border Agency has allocated each university a fixed number of Tier 2 visas, for “skilled workers” sponsored to take a particular job, to cover both new appointments and renewals between July 19 this year and March 31 next year.

Imperial College London has had the biggest absolute reduction, from 125 during the equivalent period last year to 82, and Newcastle University has had the biggest relative cut, of 50 per cent, from 56 visas to 28.

The University of Oxford’s quota has been cut from 163 to 138, the University of Cambridge’s has shrunk from 158 to 134, and University College London must make do with 78 visas compared to 92. The average cut across the 15 universities is 21 per cent.

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: “This shows that UK research is already being hit hard by these regulations. Visa rules should be helping our science base lead the world, not hindering it.

Case study

In 4½ years as head of University College London’s mathematics department, Dmitri Vassiliev has appointed only one British academic. “This is normal in mathematics, tragically,” he said. “Fortunately many of our people are EU nationals, but sometimes they are from the USA, sometimes China.”

Next week Professor Vassiliev will interview 13 candidates for two lectureships, of whom three are from outside the EU. “We could need two visas from our quota,” he said. “It is always a worry now.” While no senior applicant has yet been turned down because of the cap, one-year positions are now restricted to EU nationals and it is feared that postdoctoral recruitment could suffer if UCL runs out of visas.

This article, published in The Times, was written with Mark Henderson and Rebecca Hill.

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