Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have revealed net UK immigration hit 672,000 this year, a figure 65,000 higher than in 2022, and sitting counter to the Government’s target of reducing immigration. In response, the Home Office has made a series of announcements designed to cut immigration in coming years.

Most importantly for universities and businesses are announcements to increase the salary needed to access a worker visa by 48%, a policy designed to reduce the number of people who qualify for a work-based visa.

For universities and students, the Government re-announced a move to disallow international students on taught programmes to bring dependents to the UK when they come to study, due to come in to play from January 2024. The Home Office further commissioned a review of the Graduate Visa route.

These moves are likely to hamper innovation and economic performance by shrinking the workforce that powers it. The changes risk worsening already significant skills gaps across critical sectors, and those delivering the operation of research and development (R&D) will be most affected. In this blog, we dig deeper into the changes, warn of harmful consequences, and point to areas which need immediate support to avoid these adverse effects.

Uplift of the minimum salary to access the Skilled Worker Visa could worsen the already acute skills gaps which threaten UK research and development (R&D)

In the year ending June 2023, nearly 70,000 workers were granted a Skilled Worker Visa (69,421). At a time when nine in ten firms report skills gaps, this is a popular route with employers, enabling them to access specific skills that are of limited supply globally.

However, the announced uplift to the minimum salary required to access this route from £26,200 to £38,700 is predicted to close it to a large number of people in this talent pool, including the technicians, research assistants and early career researchers that are central to our research and innovation system.

The average salary for technicians sits at £33,743, and nearly 12% of university technician roles are filled by non-UK nationals. Additionally, almost a quarter of early career researchers at universities earn £35,000. These changes will disproportionally reduce the ability for the UK to attract and employ international talent in these important roles, meaning it will be both those who deliver the operation of innovation, and the great thinkers and researchers of tomorrow who will be lost from the UK innovation ecosystem.

The sector has collectively warned of the negative impact an increased minimum salary would have on the delivery of innovation, and in turn the UK’s Science Superpower ambitions, based on the numbers of international colleagues in these roles across the workforce.

Changes were not made to the Global Talent Visa, an exclusive visa for current and future leaders in academia, digital tech, and in arts and culture sector, or the High Potential Individual Visa, for those with degree or higher qualifications from an exclusive list of universities globally. However, numbers accessing these routes remain low (fewer than 4,000 Global Talent Visas, and 2,000 High Potential Individual Visas were granted in 2023).

Alongside successive cost rises across the board for visas, which are now in excess of £700 before the Healthcare Surcharge, the UK may increasingly struggle to attract top talent. Analysis, even before the latest recent rise in visa costs, found that UK costs sit well above competing nations, making them unaffordable for many, and especially so for those from developing nations.

These compounding factors mean the UK faces the real risk of losing out on access to top entrepreneurs, innovators and research talent. The Government’s Plan for Growth and Science and Technology Framework are central to national economic performance, but rely on a healthy and thriving workforce of skilled innovators. The announced changes risk damaging delivery of these strategies, economic growth, and the UK’s standings on the global stage.

Whilst efforts to improve and uplift domestic skills across innovation are welcome, and focus is right to be on strengthening the UK STEM workforce, skills and knowledge in this space are technical and advanced, and take time to build. Skills gaps are complex, requiring dual-pronged and long-term policy action to resolve through a mix of costly adult skilling and incentives, and long-term next-generation education pathway building. The gaps developed by these changes will leave long-term, hard to fill vacancies, and puncture the performance of UK R&D. As these risks to the research and innovation systems grow, efforts must immediately turn to working with universities and businesses to develop curricula with the skills fit to fill these gaps.

Reaffirmed commitments to preventing international students to bring dependents, and an announced review of the Graduate Visa Route, could further threaten international student numbers

As part of the announcement, the Home Office has re-affirmed commitments to remove the ability of taught students to bring dependents when they come to the UK to study. This move will come into effect from January 2024, excluding only those on postgraduate research programmes.

136,000 visas were granted to dependants of sponsored students in the year ending December 2022, and this raises questions if in future, not being able to, will be a deterrent to students, potentially reducing numbers attending HE.

The Government has further invited the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the Graduate Route. The Graduate Route allows international students who have been awarded their degree to stay in the UK and work, or look for work, at any skill level for two years, or three years for doctoral students. Graduates do not need a sponsored employer to access this route, but they must apply whilst still holding a valid Tier 4 or Student Visa.

In the year ending June 2023, there were 98,398 Graduate Route visas granted. Removal or reduction in scope of this route could leave the UK missing out on home-grown graduate talent, at a time when the employment market for graduates is competitive.

These moves have been announced to prevent abuse of the visa route, but are counter to 2019 and 2021 Department for Education targets to increase the value of education exports to £35 billion per year and to host at least 600,000 international students in the UK per year. This figure was reached in the 2021/22 academic year, with 679,970 overseas students studying at UK universities.

International students are shown to contribute and additional £41.9 billion to the UK economy, largely within their local economies, and provide enriched experiences across universities and local communities through increased diversity. Given the important role international students play in their contribution to the UK economy, and in the budgets of UK universities, any impact made by the changes will be closely watched.

NCUB joins calls to exclude student numbers from net immigration figures, to remove the detrimental impacts restrictions will create on universities and their communities.

 

The net immigration figures, while higher than those seen last year and above government targets, are lower than predictions by the ONS. Given substantial changes to immigration trends post-Brexit, with immigration from the EU more than halving since 2016 and immigration from non-EU countries increasing by nearly half, the patterns will continue to evolve in response to rhetoric and international response to the recent announcements.

This suggests the UK could be at a turning point, in which we see fewer international skilled workers joining the workforce, and fewer overseas students in our universities. Attention will now turn to application cycles in coming months, for the true impact to be understood.

Update: January 2024

In the days following the above announcements, the Home Office reduced the uplift to the Spousal/Partner Visa, which was due to be increased from £18,600 to £38,700 in March, possibly over fears many on valid visas would leave the UK as their partner would no longer be eligible to remain. Plans now indicate this will raise to £29,000 in Spring, and rise to £38,700 at a later stage, phasing the move.

None of the other announcements were reduced or rolled back, and the changes to student dependant rules came into effect from the 1st January. This move leaves questions over the Government’s rationale and if the change’s true impact is understood. NCUB will continue to raise attention to the significant impact it will have on our vital innovation workforce.