Ready for it? The immigration white paper and the end of freedom of movement

In terms of its impact on universities, the immigration White Paper comes as no great surprise. It’s heavily based as it is on the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendations which were received with widespread disappointment a few months ago. It is nevertheless worth reflecting on what the changes may mean.

The White Paper heralds the end of freedom of movement. It is instructive to remind oneself of the UK’s unique position among EU countries in seeing freedom of movement as a form of immigration that needs to be controlled. Most other countries see it as a reciprocal and beneficial right that enables national economies to access unhindered a massive pool of talent across an entire continent. It is ironic that a White Paper supposedly setting out a skills-based immigration system fit for the future begins with the Prime Minister announcing the end of a system that has allowed UK universities to seamlessly recruit over 15% of their highly skilled staff.

Instead, there will be a single route. It is impossible to predict the impact of this on the attractiveness of the UK sector for EU27 nationals given that they will retain the option of living and working without hurdles across the rest of the EU. On the one hand, the UK’s sector is undoubtedly world leading and so may be considered to be well placed to remain attractive despite additional bureaucracy.

On the other hand, part of that world-leading reputation stems from the number of EU and other overseas staff that work in universities. Take, for example, Horizion 2020 projects. The UK has topped the league of participants for a number of years. But many researchers working on those projects are EU nationals. Greater administrative barriers and other restrictions could make the UK less attractive to both EU and other overseas nationals too. This is especially the case when other countries in the EU and beyond may seize the opportunity to actively woo global academic talent.

An active deterrent

These concerns are in addition to the obvious ones about the proposed minimum salary threshold of £30,000, the restrictive rules around family settlement, and the oppressive nature of in-country immigration checks, all of which may deter applicants.

For these reasons it is to be hoped that during the consultation the government may be persuaded to make special arrangements for universities. This could be via an extension to and liberalisation of the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent route for staff employed in “institutions with degree awarding powers” (the categorisation used for more liberal working rights for students), for example. If the government is serious about a skills-based immigration system, it should have no problem recognising the need for a tailored system for highly skill-dependent sectors such as universities

Government may try to dismiss this as special pleading. However, when nations are blessed with particular strengths and resources, as the UK is with its universities, governments should be keen to protect, invest in and nurture them. The White Paper proposals fall very short of that.

More barriers?

When it comes to international students, some minor positive changes are proposed, including liberalisation of post-study work rights and more scope for switching between immigration routes. While the White Paper affirms no cap on institutional student numbers, far from reducing the compliance burden on universities and the deterrent effect on international student growth, it rather extends the categories of international students to be affected by the controls, namely to include EEA nationals.

This means a very large market, particularly for postgraduate courses, will now be subject to visa controls. When combined with likely increased tuition fees and loss of access to student support, the impact on this part of the sector could be grave indeed. The proposals go nowhere near what is necessary to address the UK’s declining competitiveness in the international student recruitment market which was explored in the Higher Education Commission’s inquiry into the subject.

It is worth also reflecting on the likely significant expansion of immigration compliance teams these new proposals will necessitate. The sector is only too aware of the high cost of doing business under the current regime, and despite the White Paper’s vague promises to streamline processes, there is nothing to suggest that massively expanding the number of nationalities caught by the immigration system will do anything other than increase those compliance costs.

It is to be hoped that the sector and its advocates will respond strongly to the consultation to make the case that now more than ever the UK’s universities need to be open to the world. There are few areas where the UK can claim to be world leading but its higher education sector is definitely, for now at least, one. If these proposals come pass that may be a much harder position to sustain.

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