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UK scientists fear impact of new immigration rules

Higher minimum salary for skilled immigrants leaves many wondering how universities will be staffed

by Benjamin Plackett, special to C&EN
December 8, 2023


People lined up at UK border control at an airport.
Credit: 1000 Words/Shutterstock
Scientists fear a new salary minimum will keep scientists from coming to the UK.

In a bid to cut immigration, the British government says it will raise the minimum salary that skilled migrants must earn to qualify for a work visa to £38,000 ($47,800) from £26,200 ($33,000). The governing Conservative party is keen to make ground on promises to stem rising rates of immigration ahead of a general election, due to take place in 2024.

The new rules mean that about 300,000 people who came to the UK last year would now be ineligible to do so, according to the government’s calculations. Many scientists are concerned because the new threshold is higher than the salary of most early-career researchers.

“We’ll see still fewer overseas applicants for postdocs in the UK,” says Ben Sheldon, a zoologist at the University of Oxford. “We don’t train enough high-quality PhD students to be able to recruit entirely from within.” More than 60% of postdoctoral researchers in the UK come from overseas, according to a report from the Royal Society, the UK’s scientific academy.

This anxiety is echoed by others. “These proposed changes, combined with big increases in visa costs earlier this year, run the risk that the UK becomes a less and less attractive destination for the world’s brightest and best talent,” says Daniel Rathbone, interim executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), which lobbies for better science funding in the UK.

The move also offends some postdoctoral researchers. “My job as a research fellow at one of the world’s best universities (a requirement of which is a doctorate) pays less than this and so, on this definition, I am an unskilled worker who wouldn’t be allowed into the country. This system is utterly ridiculous,” tweeted Emily Qureshi-Hurst, a philosopher at the University of Oxford.

How the new policy will resonate with the British electorate is unclear. Some polls show that most Brits support higher rates of immigration, but others suggest the opposite. A recent survey carried out by CaSE, meanwhile, found that almost 60% of people in the UK think research funding should be a priority for political parties.



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