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Scientists exempted from tougher UK immigration rules

For the past 18 months, the UK government has been screwing down the clamps on immigration, proclaiming that it wants to reduce net migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands a year. Scientists have been watching the crackdown with concern.

Fortunately, it seems researchers have escaped the latest tweak to the rules, announced yesterday (29 February). Until now, non-Europeans who had out-stayed the standard five-year visa in the United Kingdom were virtually guaranteed to be allowed to settle in the country. The new rules say that this is no longer true: you will have to be earning at least £35,000 (US$55,800) to avoid being kicked out. But international researchers can breathe easy: PhD-level jobs and other ‘shortage-level occupations’ (most of which involve scientists) are exempt from the wage requirements.

In the broader picture, scientists and graduate students wanting to come to the UK still face stricter visa quotas. In 2010, the government said it would limit immigration for non-EU highly skilled migrants to 20,700 people a year — down from 28,000 in 2009 — although later rules allowed scientists priority if the quota was filled; and added a new entry route for 1,000 people with “exceptional talent”.

In fact, the annual cap to April 2012 is nowhere near being filled: fewer than 10,000 visas will be granted — perhaps because of the recession, or because a perception has got out that the United Kingdom is shutting its doors. And only 11 people have come in under the exceptional-talent route so far. (According to a February speech from immigration minister Damian Green, they include “a Chinese researcher who has made a remarkable contribution to the field of condensed-matter physics” and “an Algerian chemical engineer who received a prestigious fellowship to develop new bio-fuels”).

Meanwhile, the London-based advocacy group Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CaSE) is still worried about visas for science students, noting, for example, the reduced scope for remaining in the country to study for two years after gaining a first degree.  But there was another small victory for UK science institutions yesterday: a governmental advisory panel on migration said that they shouldn’t have to waste months advertising PhD-level jobs in local job centres just to prove that no one in the area had the talent.  CaSE says that it is “pleased that aspects of immigration policy are moving in the right direction”.

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