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Scientists braced for immigration trouble

RCUK and others speak out to protect science jobs

Concerns are spreading that a proposal by the government to automatically remove jobs from the UK Border Agency’s shortage occupation list will damage science and engineering in the UK.

If employers want to hire someone for a job on the list, they are exempt from hurdles normally in place, such as the Resident Labour Market Test, which requires them to prove no EU citizen is able to take the job on offer before giving it to someone else.

The list includes a wide range of scientific, medical and engineering occupations and is reviewed once a year. But the government wants to change to automatically removing jobs from the list after two years, whether they are in shortage or not.

The government has commissioned the Home Office’s Migration Advisory Committee, a group of economists, to review this proposal and instructed it to report back by the end of January. The looming deadline has prompted groups including learned societies, research councils, academics and MPs to protest, particularly about the “arbitrary” two-year time frame.

It takes eight years to train an early-stage researcher, and upwards of 12 years for more senior positions, says Sophie Laurie, head of Research Councils UK International. “Therefore you can’t say that after two years everybody’s skilled and ready to go.”

Jonathan Wadsworth, a member of the Migration Advisory Committee and an economist at Royal Holloway, University of London, says the government’s reason for proposing the change is to tackle complacency and make sure that efforts are made to address shortages in the UK.

One of the things the committee is discussing, Wadsworth says, is whether jobs could be put back on the list after automatic removal or whether they would stay off for a period of time. “You probably would allow some flexibility…shortages can arise in the future, so you want to allow for that possibility,” he says.

Laurie adds that RCUK is trying to solve the shortage problem by putting in place various training programmes, but warns that “these can’t be done that quickly”.

“I don’t think that we’d ever have the capacity to fill all the gaps,” she says. “Because the research fields are moving so quickly, it’s difficult to design the training to take into account what we don’t necessarily know is going to be the need in the future.”

Steve McCabes, Labour MP for Birmingham, Selly Oak, and a member of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, says the proposal is a politically driven move to cut immigration numbers and is therefore “extremely likely” to get implemented. “[The proposal] doesn’t look particularly rational,” he says. “For relatively complex scientific research it is preposterous to think…you can necessarily generate people domestically within two years if there’s a shortage.”

Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge and a fellow committee member, agrees that the proposal is concerning but says the situation is just part of broader issues to do with the functioning of the immigration system.

“More of the complaints that I get relate to how the UKBA administers the policies rather than what the policies actually are,” he says. “So I think part of the aim has to be to get the UKBA to deal with applications promptly, efficiently and fairly.”

The Campaign for Science and Engineering has sent a letter to Conservative immigration minister Mark Harper, asking for assurance that an automatic time limit would not be brought in by the government without first consulting researchers.

The letter was signed by several heads of learned societies including the Institute of Physics, the Society of Biology and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

A spokeswoman at the Home Office said that she couldn’t comment on the letter.