Universities rely on international staff and students
Foreign academics are working in key subject areas such as science, technology and engineering. Barring them would be a disaster for higher education...
|The government's policy objective of reducing net migration to "the tens of thousands" by the end of the current parliament could cause major problems for UK universities. It would also irreversibly damage the reputation of the UK overseas.|
Our universities are the largest volume users of the immigration system, bringing in thousands of international staff, students and visitors every year – a fact often lost on policy-makers and commentators.
Over 10% of all our academic staff are non-EU nationals, and many are working in key subject areas such as science, technology and engineering. These highly skilled staff make up a core element of our workforce, and without them we would have to cut the provision of courses in areas of vital importance to the UK.
This would affect the opportunities for UK students wanting to study those subjects. And it's not possible to substitute these academics for UK nationals: we simply are not producing enough graduates in these areas.
Unless we are able to bring in world-leading researchers, the extraordinary international quality of UK research will plummet.
World-class research requires world-class people, and we simply can't adopt a fortress Britain attitude. In the university world, our competitors are watching and will be ready to attract international staff and students deterred by negative perceptions of the UK visa system.
As well as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the developing university systems in Singapore, China and India are competing with us for academic talent. They are not limiting their ability to recruit the top international staff.
The business secretary, Vince Cable, recognised this when he acknowledged that the government's proposals could limit businesses and universities' ability to attract "the brightest and the best" staff. The problem is that it doesn't appear that the Home Office is listening to the business department.
There is then the issue of international students, who add such richness to our campuses and allow our UK students to experience a global culture that is likely to be essential for their future as graduates in a global world. And that is quite apart from the substantial income – over £5bn – that international students bring to the UK economy each year.
The cap on non-EU economic employees has already caused major difficulties for universities as interim limits were imposed in the middle of staff recruitment for the new academic year. There is also a particular difficulty with the current points-based system of immigration which rewards salary, not expertise. This means that some of the best international researchers, who score extraordinarily highly on academic qualifications but poorly on salary (researchers tend not to be well paid) fail to gain enough points to pass the test.This debate has raised questions about whether the UK is indeed "open for business". Changes to our immigration system do not go unnoticed overseas. The government's policy to limit migration featured prominently during David Cameron's visit to India earlier this year. As the Prime Minister himself has acknowledged, our strategic relationship with India, China and many other countries is critically important to this country's future. But this relationship depends not only on the flow of goods and political goodwill but also on the mobility of people to and from the UK.
Of course universities acknowledge the need for a robust immigration system. But it should be proportionate and workable, and must not be imposed at the expense of our universities, our international reputation and our economic growth.
• Nicola Dandridge is chief executive of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' umbrella organisation.
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