Higher education sector responds to plans for a points-based visa system

A report from the Migration Advisory Committee has sparked a debate in HE about new pay thresholds

A report from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) on immigration after Brexit has been met with a mixed response from the higher education sector, particularly with regard to changes to the pay threshold for higher education teaching professionals.

The advisory report from the independent, non-governmental body was published in response to a call from home secretary Priti Patel for recommendations on a new points-based system (PBS).

The report recommends extending the scope of the tier 1 (exceptional talent) visa so that more high-skilled people can enter the country without the promise of employment. It also suggests reducing the minimum salary threshold for most immigrants from the one originally proposed by the government.

The recommendations include lifting the cap on tier 1 visas (currently, only 2,000 are offered a year) and reducing the salary threshold from the proposed £30,000 to £25,600.

Although many in the sector welcomed the changes proposed, they also warned the proposals did not go far enough to protect recruitment opportunities for high-skilled immigrants.

Threshold changes for higher education teaching professionals

Chief executive of Universities UK (UUK) Alistair Jarvis said that, while universities agreed the £30,000 threshold was too high, the MAC’s reduction did not go far enough.

He added: “There should be a further reduction to attract a diverse workforce, including lab technicians and language assistants, who are vital to supporting the success of our universities.

“We are also concerned that standard salary levels in higher education sectors would no longer be recognised, meaning it will be harder to attract international talent into key lecturer roles.”

Under the new MAC proposals, lecturers would be expected to earn more than £40,000 per annum to qualify for a tier 2 visa – £7,000 more than they do at the moment.

The report wants to use the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) as the basis for calculating the pay thresholds of a new PBS.

At the moment, the home office does not calculate the ‘going rate’ of staff in higher education using the ASHE and instead relies on figures provided to it by UUK, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) and GuildHE.

The MAC described this non-standard approach, which is also used for other professions like architects and barristers, as “anomalous to us”, adding: “Higher education teaching professionals should have occupation-specific thresholds based on the relevant ASHE data for their occupation.” (Point 5.77, pg. 144).

If measured under the ASHE, the MAC estimates the new pay threshold for lecturers would be £40,659.

The UUK chief executive said more must be done to “ensure that new immigration arrangements avoid potential unintended negative consequences” for universities.

Read more: Immigration should support university recruitment, poll of public suggests

‘Stop treating migrants as commodities’

MillionPlus, the body representing post-92 universities, said the proposals left “much to address”.

Prof Rama Thirunamachandran, chair of MillionPlus and vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University, said: “The MAC’s recommendations on a future points-based system (PBS) are constructive and thoughtful. We have called for clear government objectives from which to develop a PBS policy based on the Australian model, arguing that greater consultation was needed in order to get it right.

“We strongly welcome the MAC’s agreement with this analysis and any pragmatic moves to start this wider conversation while retaining much needed clarity within the system. Such a significant change to the immigration system requires careful planning and we hope this report will spark a new period of consultation with the government to determine a system that works in the best interest of the UK.

“Clearly there remains much to address, such as the single salary threshold across all of the UK and the inability to pro-rata salaries, however the MAC has listened to the sector in many areas and we look forward to working with them and the government as policy is developed in this important area.”

The University and College Union (UCU) said: “Migrant staff and students bring huge benefits to our education system as well as to the wider economy and society, but we need to stop treating them as commodities to be measured.

“Instead of trying to introduce a new ‘points-based’ system to weigh up their worth, the government’s focus should be on removing any unnecessary barriers for those who wish to come to the UK for work or study.”

The union described the decision not to scrap minimum salary thresholds as “disappointing”.

Technicians and other skilled university staff

According to The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, the £30,000 salary threshold is already in place for workers from non-EU countries seeking a tier 2 visa (a general work permit).

Only 10% of full-time academic staff in the UK earn less than £33,518, data from the Higher Education Statistics Authority (Hesa) shows, but precise figures below £30,000 are not available.

According to Prospects, a careers and recruitment website that works closely with HE, a university laboratory technician – one of the roles flagged in Mr Jarvis’s statement – earns on average between £22,000 and £28,000.

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