New immigration rules could prevent universities from hiring the best international talent and send a message that the UK is “closing ranks”, higher education leaders have warned.
Academics and University bodies have told Sky News an increase in the minimum salary for a skilled worker visa effectively prices out early career academics and researchers vital to driving innovation.
Some 32% of academic staff at British universities are from overseas but this week Home Secretary James Cleverley announced the minimum salary threshold for a skilled visa would increase from £26,200 to £38,700, well above the early-career academic average of £30,000-£35,000.
In addition, foreign workers will see the NHS surcharge, a healthcare fee that has to be paid upfront, increase from over £600 to more than £1,000.
University leaders fear the pay gap will damage their ability to compete for the best talent in a genuinely international market, with research funds potentially having to be diverted to top-up salaries.
“The increase in the skilled worker general salary threshold requirement is really significant. The category of people it’s going to impact on is precisely the early career and postdoctoral researchers who are so vital,” said Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, vice-chancellor of St Andrews and president of Universities UK.
“Many of the people we employ as postdocs are not at that salary level, so the implications are that this will bring in another cost precisely at the point where we’re struggling.
“The message this sends to the potential workforce is that the UK is not really seeking to boost its economy, but is rather closing ranks.”
‘Any extra obstacles are bad obstacles’
Dame Sally also warned the increased costs could undermine the government’s ambition for the UK to be a science and technology “superpower”.
The prime minister and chancellor have repeatedly acknowledged there is a direct link between the innovation in Britain’s genuinely world-class universities and the high-growth industries of the future such as life sciences and AI.
Dame Sally added: “The government has got to look very hard at what message it wants to convey. If we are saying the UK is seeking to boost its economy and be a global player then it needs a constructive, engaged and really creative policy towards the employment of vital talent we need from all over the world.”
Professor David Kent, who runs a leukaemia research program at the University of York’s department of biology, says the added costs of hiring from overseas could deter people from joining a staff that already includes Polish, Swedish, Mexican and Chinese staff.
He explained: “People are now going to be faced with a choice. I’m going to say I’d like to interview you, and they will ask, ‘what does my future look like if I’ve got this thousand pounds a year for my health care surcharge, for every member of my family, paid upfront for the duration of my visa, and I’ve got to meet this minimum salary?’.
“If you’re a German postdoc looking at positions in Germany, France or the UK, these are extra obstacles and any extra obstacles to bringing the best and brightest here are bad obstacles and we need to work around those.”
Home Office defends visa routes despite concerns over students
Under the current visa regime, there are a number of discounts to paying full salaries that universities can apply to certain categories of employees, but the Home Office was unable to confirm whether they will apply under the new rules.
They said alternative routes for academics will still apply, including the Global Talent path for highly skilled migrants who do not require a visa.
“While net migration remains too high, putting a strain on public services, we have a world-leading range of visa routes to attract international talent into our technology sector and support international founders set up companies in the UK,” a Home Office spokesperson said.
The higher education sector is already under acute financial pressure with universities heavily reliant on overseas students to underwrite capped domestic fees, which do not cover the cost of delivering education, leading to a debt burden of around £1bn.
There are concerns that a review of the student visa regime also announced this week could further undermine the UK’s competitiveness.
With students accounting for more than a third of net migration last year, the government has already tightened the rules on students bringing their dependents to this country.
Currently, students can transition to a two-year work visa after three years but that is under review.
University leaders point out that countries like Australia permit at least three years of work with dependents.