UK must not close its doors to skilled researchers

By Dr Sophie Laurie, Head of RCUK International.

Last August the Government asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the shortage occupation list; occupations where the UK currently lacks skilled workers. Usually, employers recruiting outside the EEA are required to complete a test to demonstrate that there is no suitable settled worker, but this requirement is waived for occupations on the list. The UK maintains its well-deserved reputation as a global research leader in a number of ways, and the ability to attract the best international talent is essential, particularly in areas where we currently lack sufficient home-grown highly skilled researchers.

 One of the review’s proposals is that that all occupations and job titles which have been on the shortage occupation list for longer than two years should be removed. At present, many of the research areas where we need a reliable and uncomplicated migratory route are included on the shortage occupation list, but this could all change if the MAC upholds this recommendation when it reports on 31 January.

 As RCUK we work closely with the UK research community to identify current and emerging skills gaps and to ensure that the right support and investment goes into addressing them. But it’s simply not possible to create a highly trained researcher in two years. In fact, we estimate that it takes 7-8 years to progress from gaining a PhD to the first steps in an independent career. Add A levels, an undergraduate degree and the PhD itself to that and it’s clear that only long-term action can help us ‘grow our own’ researchers. While we’re building capacity, it is of course vital that the UK doesn’t drop behind our global competitors and, to avoid this happening, it’s essential that the Government’s immigration policy enables the Research Councils to attract and retain the best international talent via a flexible approach.

 The automatic removal of key occupations from the shortage list after two years risks shutting down the UK’s ability to participate in emerging research fields. Closing the door in the face of those immigrants – geoscientists, biostatisticians, informatics specialists to name but a few – whose skills can benefit the UK so greatly, would surely be cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

 The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) recently wrote to Immigration Minister Mark Harper to make the case for protecting these vital immigration routes into the UK for key research staff, a letter to which RCUK gave our formal support. We therefore hope that the Government will maintain its valued commitment to research by making sure any changes to the shortage occupation list do not have an adverse effect on the UK.