A version of this post was published as ‘Why the immigration cap spells trouble for universities’ at guardian.co.uk on 6 April, 2011.

On 6 April 2011 the Coalition Government’s permanent immigration cap will come into force. Sportspeople, intercompany transfers and Ministers of Religion will not be affected. Academics, on the other hand, will be screwed.

This policy will reverse the centuries old practice that has seen foreign scholars flock to this country, bringing with them skills that have benefitted British science, industry and culture in ways that are impossible to quantify. It heralds the beginning of a brain disdain that will have enormous consequences for universities in Britain.

Tier 2 visas will be limited to 20,700 per year, with 1,500 to be released each month. This is the visa category under which organisations sponsor skilled employees – the category that almost all non-EU academics applying for jobs in UK universities initially hold. Universities will have to compete with the City** and other organisations for ‘Certificates of Sponsorship’, something that will prove extremely difficult given the weight granted to a position’s salary under the points-based system and the fact that applications will be approved solely on the number of points scored.

Universities in England in the late nineteenth century were also pretty good at disdaining brains – at least scientific ones. In contrast, the universities in Germany, America, and from the 1880s those in the settler colonies of Canada and Australia as well, reached out to embrace the professions and the applied sciences, offering degrees in engineering, chemistry, applied physics, and medicine not widely available in England.

Consequently, when England began to wake up to the need to foster science education in the early years of the twentieth century, it was to its settler colonies and to Scotland that it turned for the expertise it had previously exported. From New Zealand and Canada came Ernest Rutherford; from Adelaide came William Bragg; and from McGill came Frederick Soddy. But it was the First World War that really brought home the full consequences of the country’s distain for academic science. Britain found itself desperately short of appropriately qualified chemists, physicists, geologists and engineers, all of whom were needed to fight in a war that would be as much about science and innovation as it was about men and muscles. These men were brought back to Britain from the universities in the settler colonies and America, with key elements of war research run by scientists from abroad.

After the war the lesson was learned and universities and government alike embraced scientific research. In Oxford the German-born Ernst Chain and the Australian-born Howard Florey collaborated to discover the means of extracting penicillin; from Poland came the physicist and mathematician Max Born, whose work was key to the development of quantum physics; and from New Zealand came the physicist and molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins who would later receive the Nobel Prize with Crick and Watson for his work on the structure of DNA. Indeed, in the past century 25% of the UK’s Nobel Prizes have been won by immigrants.

And neither is it only scientists who have enriched British universities. The classicist Gilbert Murray, the historian Lewis Namier, the international relations scholar Hedley Bull, and the philosophers Ronald Dworkin and Jospeh Raz, are among the many highly distinguished academics who, coming to this country from abroad, have helped build British scholarship.

In 1924 A.N. Whitehead, then Professor of Applied Mathematics at Imperial College, spoke of ‘one of the best institutions of the Middle Ages, the wandering scholar’. Referring to the movement of students and teachers throughout Medieval Europe, Whitehead hoped that in the twentieth century the universities of Great Britain might replicate this tradition by attracting scholars from across the globe. One wonders what he would think of their prospects at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

**Erratum: It is industry rather than the City that constitute the biggest competition. Although PhD level positions in Higher Education are accorded substantial credit (50 points), jobs on the list of shortage occupations are allocated significantly more (75 points). Additional points are then awarded on a sliding scale for earnings on top of these base levels. This means that an academic position would need to be paid more than £75,000 – more than most professors – before it even draws level with the base score for the shortage list. Moreover, as some science positions do appear on this list, the policy seriously disadvantages those in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and it places junior academics in an unenviable position. A Junior Research Fellow at Oxford gets paid as little as £18,000 p.a.