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UK could cut skilled migrant visas by 25%

International researchers attempting to get visas for the UK could be in for a rough time following a government advisory panel’s recommended limits on the number of ‘highly skilled’ migrants.

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommended today that the number of people allowed in under the ‘highly skilled workers’ route should be cut by between 13 and 25% for 2011/12. This is despite the committee noting that that these workers probably have a small positive impact on GDP, contribute positively to public finances and “play a small but important” role in education and health services.

“It would be remiss not to point out that there is widespread concern among employers regarding the impact that limits on migration could have,” notes MAC chairman David Metcalf in the introduction to the new report.

Institutions such as biomedical research funder the Wellcome Trust have already cautioned that these visas are vital for the UK’s research base. (Nature has also warned of the dangers of a clumsy cap in an editorial out this week.)

The UK’s coalition government has pledged to reduce net immigration from its current level of near 200,000 per year down to “tens of thousands”. It asked the MAC what this would mean for limits on the ‘highly skilled workers’ programme, which are given to people who are sponsored by companies as ‘tier 2’ migrants, or un-sponsored as ‘tier 1’ migrants.

However, the government cannot control migration from other European Union countries, because freedom of movement between EU countries is a core principle of the EU. Even stopping all visas to non-EU workers would not bring down migration to tens of thousands. Given this, the MAC looked at what contribution tier 1 and tier 2 visa cuts might make and came up with a reduction of between 6,300 and 12,600 visas out of the 50,000 visa baseline. It suggests tier 1 should take the brunt of the cuts.

The picture is complicated by the fact that the government has already pledged that intra-company transfers will not be included in any cap. This is particularly important for research: for the year to June 2010, scientists and technology professionals made up 58% of intra-company transfers (see graph – click to enlarge).

tier 2s small.bmp

These transfers also make up the bulk of tier 2 visas – some 60% of those issued in 2009. So if the government does adopt the MAC numbers, and intra-company transfers are to be preserved, the number of other visas available will have to take a massive nose-dive.

“It is difficult to see how a limit on Tier 2 can make a substantial contribution towards reducing net migration unless intra-company transfers are included,” warns today’s MAC report.

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