Scientific researchers are among those to be prioritized under the UK government's new immigration rules that will impose an annual cap on the number of work visas issued to people from outside the European Union. The new rules, which will take effect from 6 April, will place an annual limit of 21,700 workers divided up into monthly allocations. But despite being billed as more "business friendly", the move will reduce the number of highly skilled workers from outside of Europe by as much as 6300 compared with two years ago.

The government released details of its new points-based scheme on 16 February following the announcement last November that it intended to alter the work-based route to entering the UK. As with the existing system, the scheme is designed to heavily favour people entering designated shortage occupations – a regularly updated list that currently includes roles in geophysics and medical physics. But the system has also been tweaked to give preference to PhD-level jobs over those who simply earn high salaries. For instance, an applicant who has a job with a salary of £23,000 that requires a PhD or equivalent would be preferred over someone looking to take up a £74,000 job that does need a PhD.

Striking a balance

Beth Taylor, director of communications at the Institute of Physics [which publishes Physics World] welcomes the reforms. "We are very pleased with the outcome," she says. "[The changes] include the two main safeguards we were hoping for: striking a better balance between qualifications and salary, so that applicants with PhD status will be on a par with those earning higher salaries; and awarding more points in shortage areas, including physics."

This view is shared by Imran Khan of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), who sees the proposals as a victory for science and engineering. "For a long time now the visa allocation system has rewarded wealthy investors and premier league footballers, and discriminated against top scientists and engineers – it's great to see this finally being addressed," he says. CaSE had sent a letter to the UK government last October in response to the impending cap, warning that the nation "must not isolate itself" from the global world of research. The signatories included eight Nobel laureates such as Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov who won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The changes are part of wider reforms, which the government claims will attract the best oversees talent while ensuring that migrants do not restrict opportunities for UK nationals. This was a theme that formed part of the Conservative party's manifesto in the lead up to the general election last May. "Britain needs to attract the brightest and the best to fill jobs gaps but this should never be at the expense of workers already here," says immigration minister Damian Green. "We have worked closely with businesses while designing this system, and made it clear employers should look first to people who are out of work and who are already in this country."

Student immigration

In a separate speech, Green also stated his intent to impose stricter rules on non-EU citizens coming to the UK for study. Changes will include more robust English language tests and restrictions on sub-degree-level courses that students from outside the EU can take. But this proposal has been strongly criticized by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) – a UK think tank. HEPI estimates that if these proposals had been implemented since 2005 the number of international students entering UK universities would be at most 25% of the present number, and the cumulative loss of income from students excluded would be as much as £12bn. One reason they cite is that many students come to the UK to study pre-university courses before remaining to continue study.

"This proposal, if implemented, will reverse what has become one of this country's most successful recent economic growth areas – one that contributes more than £5bn per year to the economy – and will seriously weaken the finances of our universities at a time when they are facing serious pressure because of public expenditure cuts," says HEPI director Bahram Bekhradnia. A spokesperson for the Home Office told physicsworld.com that the UK government will announce its official reforms to the student immigration system shortly.