April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Last week, I travelled to UCL to meet Imran Khan, head of CaSE. Imran is an alumnus of the Imperial College Science Communication MSc course and was previously a researcher for former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris. As Director of CaSE, Imran deals with a whole range of issues surrounding science policy. Today, Imran talks about immigration…

AP:       You mentioned previously the work CaSE has done in campaigning against the Government’s proposed immigration cap. Could you tell us a little bit more about this?

It all stated back in last year’s election campaign when the Conservatives said that they wanted to reduce net immigration into the UK from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. This was one of the things Cameron really banged on about in the TV debates. The way in which they planned to achieve this reduction was to introduce a cap on immigrants. The Coalition formally announced this policy during the Queen’s speech just over a year ago. As soon as they did this, we raised the alarm. Before I started at CaSE,  we’d done lots of work showing the importance of international mobility, saying that actually you’ve got to make sure that there’s a brain circulation; you’ve got to make sure that the UK is receptive to bringing in people from abroad, as well as UK scientists going elsewhere. Science is a global game and if you cut yourself off there’s no way you can have as much impact and do as much research as you can, compared to if you’re really embracing the global talent pool. We looked at the numbers behind this and found that in academia alone — particularly in subjects like chemistry and engineering — almost a quarter of academics in the UK come from outside the EU.

This is really relevant because EU rules mean that the UK can’t actually limit immigration from countries which are part of the EU. So, the cap the Government wanted to bring in was really saying that there would be hard limit put on the numbers of immigrants to come in from outside of the EU. We were showing that the people you’re relying on to try and train the British scientists and engineers of the future could be stopped from coming in, which is just stupid. Similarly on the industry side, General Electric said that the cap could cause them major problems. They had been contracted to build a new renewable energy facility in Cumbria and they were saying that unless they could bring in engineers from abroad, there was no way they could possibly deliver the project. So they were actually lobbying people like Chris Huhne as well.

It was a huge issue and, as I talked about earlier, all the way through summer — as well as doing the spending review stuff — we were also talking to the Home Office, the UK Border Agency and other decision makers and telling them that they’ve really got to listen to the needs of scientists and engineers here. I suppose part of the problem was that, even before the Government started talking about a cap, if you’re coming from outside of the EU wanted to get a visa, you had to go through something called the ‘points-based system’. Basically, in this system you get a number of points depending on your qualifications, your language levels, your salary etc. If you meet a certain threshold then you get a visa and you get in. If you don’t meet the threshold, sorry, you get chucked out. The trouble with this was that scientists and engineers just hadn’t been rewarded by that system. It was particularly problematic for academics, because fundamentally the reason why people do academic jobs is because they’re not as motivated by salary. If they were, they’d go into industry, they’d go into banking, or something else. I mean, god knows, we have enough top people leaving university and just going straight into finance, where they earn way, way more. If you stay in academia, it’s partly because you’re not as motivated by a salary.

So, although the cap did come in in the end — despite all our negotiations and our media work — it came in at the highest allowance that it could have done. The Government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee, which is an independent group, to say what range of policies the UK could have to try and meet this policy aim. They then recommended a range and the Government ended up choosing the top of that range. Obviously that’s not great, but it’s better than it could have been. However, they did really drastically change the points-based system, to the extent that now, if you apply for a job where you require a PhD-level qualification, you get the equivalent of a  £50k bonus to your salary. Basically, what that means is that if you’re applying for an academic job on £23K a year, you will get prioritised above someone who’s going to work for a bank at £70K a year. We think this is a pretty important victory. Again, not ideal, but better than it was — and certainly better than it could have been.