Attracting bright minds from anywhere in a global competition for talent is an issue for many companies, and especially for us as a university.
Immigration is a sensitive issue in many countries, and this is especially true in the UK right now in the run up to the General Election. I have no interest in getting involved in a party political debate about different approaches to immigration. But I do believe that if we want the UK to be globally competitive we need to ensure that the country is appealing and open to top talent, wherever they come from. In this context, it’s hard not to be incensed by restrictive legislation that reduces the appeal of the entire country to talent from abroad.
For example, the introduction of a new NHS rule in April 2015 will see non-European staff (who are on visas) paying an upfront fee of £200 per year of the visa per member of the family – so that’s a £5000 upfront fee for an Indian professor, her husband, and their three children on a five year visa (the corresponding NHS supplement fee for a student is £150 per year). This latest rule tightening is presumably to prevent foreigners from “free-riding” on the services of our social security system, particularly the NHS.
Moreover, universities in the UK are required to keep a detailed record of the location of their students: Cambridge students must be resident in the city for 60 nights per term, and if they are absent, detailed records must be kept. If we are unable to account for all students at all times, we may lose our “Highly Trusted Sponsor” [for visas] status, which means our students will have to spend more time to get visas. Or not be able to come at all. This latter tightening of the rules is presumably to avoid a repeat of the London Met visa scandal of 2012, where some students were found to have “attendance issues” in classes.
I respect the need of the country to prevent an uncontrolled influx of immigrants, and to protect workers who are vulnerable to unfair competition from abroad. But the new immigration policies are targeted entirely at the wrong population, and therefore, rather than addressing the immigration problem, they will hurt the UK’s reputation and standing.
Let me explain…
First, the NHS upfront fee. What does it say to the world? It de facto communicates that we are not willing to differentiate between unskilled workers and highly skilled professionals who are needed in this country, and that we are willing to throw fairness out the window – how can I explain to the mentioned Indian professor that she will pay the same taxes and social security contributions as I but will have to pay an NHS surcharge to prevent free-riding?
Second, the control of the students’ location at any point in time while they are in the UK. Yes, we want to keep “fake” students out. But a blanket control paranoia does nothing to help our appeal to a globally mobile group of talented prospective students when we already are under so much pressure anyway to push our students to perform – from rankings, from the students’ expectations about careers following the degree, and from our own (the University’s and the Colleges’) extremely strict conditions on our conduct and the students’.
Remember that especially our students (all of the graduate students or undergraduates in an additional honour year) already have careers, are accomplished and have achieved positions of trust and power. The new control rule is the kind of policy that causes us to be seen to be bureaucratic, nannying, and outright inappropriate. We, and all universities in the UK, and all larger companies in the UK, are competing for global talent, and on behalf of UK plc it would be good to be able to show that we hold these capable, talented, and tax-paying professionals (or soon tax paying students) in high esteem. Punish the few guilty by all means, but don’t condemn (and insult) the majority of students who represent a much needed resource for the UK.
Establishing policies designed to protect low-skilled workers, to reduce free-loading and to manage immigration are all admirable ideals, but the current policies not only are ineffective (because none of our students or staff compete with UK low-skilled workers) but outright hostile and unfair toward a population of highly talented people who collectively do have an influence on the reputation of the UK in the world.