Leaving the European Union provides a reset point for UK immigration policy. It is no secret that the UK has benefited from the freedom of movement of scientists and engineers from the EU. Britain was the single largest destination for Marie Sklodowska-Curie Action fellowships during FP7, and statistics show that 72% of UK-based researchers were internationally mobile between 1996 – 2015. Data from the FSB shows that 85% of small businesses have employed EU nationals, of which 72% were recruited while they already lived in the UK.

Following the 2016 referendum, mobility has been sighted as the key issue for the future of science and engineering in the UK. An immigration system that compliments a thriving domestic skills base is something that we have longed advocated for, and last month we published our immigration policy review. The review makes a series of recommendations for Government, both to rebuild confidence in immigration policy in the short term and to create a streamlined immigration system in the long term.

In rebuilding confidence in the short term, we called for the Government to amend current visa rules for non-EU nationals and to improve messages in welcoming scientists and engineers to the UK. We also called for the maintenance of the free movement of EU citizens through the Brexit transition period, and an agreement on this has now been confirmed. In creating future immigration policy, we called for an immigration system that facilitates frictionless movement, has proportionate system rules, is founded on robust evidence and is fit for the future.

The Government cap on ‘brightest and best’

Recent months have seen the monthly cap on skilled migration from outside the EU being exceeded, meaning workers preparing to move to the UK to work have been refused visas. These refusals come despite stringent and strict processes required by the Home Office and even when meeting all the criteria, non-EU workers have risked rejection. We are currently seeking the exact number of people who have been affected from the Home Office, but we understand that hundreds of engineers will have been affected, alongside many doctors, teachers and others.

We wrote to the Prime Minister calling for the removal of Shortage Occupation and PhD-level roles from the Tier 2 (General) visa cap and in the long term we have called for the abolition of the cap entirely. The Government has consistently talked about welcoming the ‘brightest and best’ to the UK, but current policies are not helping in attracting people to the UK and risk further damage by turning people away.

Nuanced debate is needed

The referendum on EU membership was presented as the ultimate black and white question, do we wish to remain inside or leave the EU. For the past few years, immigration has been viewed in the same way by Government, targeting a restriction in overall migrant numbers. The issues of Brexit and immigration, clearly have the same thing in common in their levels of complexity, as seen in the unravelling of pertinent individual issues over Brexit. Continuing to think of immigration in this singly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ manner will only serve to make the debate more highly polarized and more harmful to the UK’s ability to continue to attract people to work and live here.

We have consistently called for an evidence-based approach to immigration policy, so we were pleased to see that the Government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the effects of migrant workers and international students in the UK. Given that the MAC won’t report until September however, there are growing concerns that employers will not be given some much needed certainty about the future of immigration for a while longer. In the short term, the Government needs to engage with the public and an array of stakeholders on immigration and take the lead on using evidence effectively in their positions, policies and messaging on migration.

We will continue to work and campaign in this space to press for a migration system that supports a thriving science and engineering sector. This policy review will help us to hold the Government to account in the development of immigration policy pre and post-Brexit.

By James Tooze, Policy Officer, Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE). To read more of their work, including policy reviews on Brexit and Diversity & Inclusion, visit the CaSE website here.