UK immigration changes a concern for engineers

UK skills shortage to be made worse by policy changes engineers say

Changes to the UK’s immigration system will make the skills shortage worse, engineering organisations say.

The recent changes to the immigration system have included changes to the student visa and skilled migrant visas. While priority has been given to engineers and scientists in some of the changes, there are still concerns from the industry about how it will affect the sector, and the numbers of engineers and scientists in the UK.

David Brown, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), said the changes were less severe than they could have been – intra-company transfers had been exempted, and priority had been given to PhD-level jobs and those on the shortage occupation list, which includes many science and engineering roles.

However, he thought the immigration changes would make the skills shortage worse. “I think we will make matters worse if we make it harder for employers to recruit from universities around the world.”

Brown said he would like to see a number of things changed in the immigration system – a job at Chartered Engineer level should be given extra points, all branches of engineering should be on the shortage occupation list, and senior engineering professionals and academics should be able to bring in their colleagues and research teams.

Companies in the sector were global and needed to pull in a global talent pool, he said. It was “absolutely crucial” the engineering industry maintained the demand, and that Britain stayed open for science, including engineering and technology, and business.

Dr Tony Whitehead, director of policy and governance at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), said the changes would not help the sector contribute to the UK’s economic recovery.

“Employers are clearly saying that they need more professional engineers and engineering technicians to fill their skills gaps. Our own research shows that a third of employers find it hard to recruit suitable senior engineers while one in five face difficulties in recruiting suitable graduate engineers.”

However, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), who worked to ensure scientists and engineers were not disadvantaged in the changes, said there was a lot in the new system that welcomed scientists and engineers.

Dr Hilary Leevers, assistant director at CaSE, said the border agency and government had worked hard to understand the needs of the industry and the changes introduced -  including prioritising people going for PhD-level jobs and those on the shortage occupation list, as well as the new exceptional talent route - were “very beneficial”.

She hoped the current set up did not limit the number of engineers and scientists entering the UK and if anything hoped the UK saw an increased uptake.

Dr Leevers said there were still unnecessary delays, for example the resident labour market test did not need to be applied to the sector in the same way, as scientists and engineers were usually going in with a niche set of skills.

Student visas

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, for the 2008/09 year, showed the percentage of international students (EU and non-EU) in an engineering and technology-related subject was 31 per cent. The only other subject area to have the same amount of international students was business and administrative studies.

Hugo Donaldson, from the IET, said students came to study in the UK because the country’s universities were some of the best in the world. Changes to the student visa would have a “direct affect” on engineering departments at UK universities, as they would lose a significant proportion of their income if fewer international students came to the UK, he said.

“There will also be a knock on affect on UK businesses who employ foreign students on completion of their degrees in the UK or who benefit from the ideas and knowledge foreign students generate during their time at UK universities.”

Fees

Meanwhile, undergraduate engineering course fees look to increase to the maximum £9,000 mark at UK universities next year, a move which would have a “damaging, downward effect” and deter students from going to university, Brown said.

Oxford University and Durham University said they planned to increase fees to £9,000 for all courses, including engineering. Other universities following suit, included Aston University, in Birmingham; Imperial College London; and Southampton University. Scholarships, bursaries, and financial help would be available, the universities said.

Brown said the UK was damaging one of its greatest assets – its universities – by cutting funding and then also making it more difficult for universities to earn money from elsewhere.

Further reading:

An investigation by E&T in the magazine’s latest issue examines global migration trends and the impact on skills shortages. E&T editor-in-chief Dickon Ross said the UK was already facing a “critical shortage in engineers and the new changes will make a bad scenario much worse”. He comments more about the policy changes in his editor’s blog.

For more information on the changes visit the UK Border Agency’s website.

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