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Are you a highly skilled worker?

By Margaret Harris

UK government proposals to cap the numbers of skilled non-EU immigrants could seriously hurt the country’s science departments and hi-tech industries. That, at least, is the message in an editorial in this week’s Nature, which goes on discuss how such a cap could make it hard for UK institutions to recruit and retain the best overseas scientists.

But I think there’s an unexplored question here, which is this: how hard is it to qualify for a highly skilled worker visa to the UK under current rules? Would a typical postdoc make the cut? How about a more senior scientist? And, for that matter, how about you?

In the interests of finding out, I paid a visit to the UK Border Agency’s Points-Based-System calculator. The calculator allows you to see how many points you’d earn under the current system based on various attributes like income, age and qualifications.

I started by picking the “Tier 1 – Highly Skilled Workers” option, then selected the “General” tab. This is the category meant for highly skilled workers who are not entrepreneurs or investors, and are not eligible for “post-study work” (a short-term category for recent graduates only). This type of visa differs from an ordinary work permit in that it’s not contingent on a particular job – a big plus in this age of redundancies and stagnant science funding.

Then I decided that my hypothetical non-EU scientist – let’s call him Kostya – is currently working as a postdoc in the UK, and has in fact done his PhD there too. But his post-study work visa is about to expire, so he wants to switch into the highly skilled worker category. So far, so good.

Next, I had to decide how old Kostya was. I picked 25 – quite young for a postdoc, but then, this is a top-quality scientist we’re talking about. Result! Kostya scores 20 points for his age, the maximum possible.

Now we were on to qualifications and income. Kostya’s got a PhD, which nets him another 45 points. However, his postdoc job isn’t tremendously well paid; he got just under £30k last year, which is worth a measly 5 points even though it’s about 15% more than the UK median salary. But at least he got his PhD in the UK, which is worth 5 attribute points and also knocks out the English-language requirement (10 mandatory points).

Finally, I assume that Kostya’s careful with his money, so he’s had at least £800 in his bank account continuously for the past 90 days (10 mandatory points). Truly, a model migrant.

But what’s this? Kostya’s only got 75 “attribute points” (not counting the 10 each for speaking English and having £800), and he needs 80 to qualify as a highly skilled worker. Bad luck, Kostya! Better go do your Nobel-prize-winning research somewhere else!

Yes, as it turns out, “Kostya” isn’t entirely hypothetical. In fact, he’s based on Konstantin Noveselov, the Russian-born Nobel laureate who moved to the University of Manchester as a postdoc in 2001. The only thing I changed in going from Noveselov circa 2001 to “Kostya” in 2010 was to adjust the salary and give “Kostya” a PhD, which Noveselov didn’t get until 2004.

You can try running some other scenarios through the points-based calculator and see what you get. But in my view, there is something wrong with a system that doesn’t recognize a future Nobel laureate as a “highly skilled worker”.

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