A Nobel prize-winning scientist whose discovery at a British university will help the UK economy become more competitive launched a blistering attack yesterday on the Government's "stupid" immigration policy.
Russian-born physicist Professor Sir Andre Geim said new restrictions on non-European Union immigrants, including minimum salary requirements of at least £31,000 and tighter student visa rules, are blocking the brightest academics from working at British institutions. He told The Independent on Sunday that the restrictions would have prevented him and his team from identifying the revolutionary "super-material" graphene, which earned him the Nobel Prize in physics in 2010.
Sir Andre warned that future scientific breakthroughs at British institutions were at risk because of the tighter controls, introduced this year to bring down annual net migration from more than 200,000 to "tens of thousands". His stance echoes that of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and a number of government ministers who want David Cameron to devise a more sophisticated approach to immigration, such as exempting students from the target.
Graphene, which was isolated by Sir Andre and his team of Russian and Chinese scientists at Manchester University in 2005, is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged similarly to graphite. It is exceedingly tough, and could transform the development of touch-screen technology, clothing fabric and even energy creation.
The Chancellor, George Osborne, has enthusiastically backed the material, last week announcing £21.5m of funds to put Britain at the forefront of developing commercial uses for graphene, which he hopes will help steer the UK into sound economic growth. China and South Korea are already commercialising graphene, encouraging the Government to fund a technology which could flourish into a multibillion-pound industry. Mr Osborne also praised Sir Andre and his fellow scientists for their discovery in his Conservative Party conference speech of 2011.
Speaking on immigration, Sir Andre said: "We need to distinguish between good and bad immigration – there is a difference between a person who brings a family of 20 who cannot speak English and a bright overseas student.
"Most students already do not plan to stay in this country – around 10 per cent will. I can't stress enough how stupid it is that the Government has put immigrants and overseas students in the same category. [Education] is a billion-dollar industry and overseas students should be made welcome.
"To put a minimum salary requirement in place might undermine students' chances to secure certain positions after graduation, and I can't see a reason for this as there are enough restrictions in place already. When employers consider somebody for a position they already consider that to hire a foreign national will cause additional problems because of the language barrier."
As part of its bid to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" by 2015, the Government has placed restrictions on foreign students, including tougher English tests, and a minimum salary requirement of between £31,000 and £49,000, depending on family connection, on workers. Boris Johnson and some ministers say that the radical steps are putting off brilliant academics from applying to the UK. The Royal Society says a separate government scheme introduced in 2011 to attract 1,000 top academics and artists had allowed only 50 people in. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, this month admitted that the Labour government had made mistakes on immigration, and said a future government under his premiership would be tougher.
The Government is also braced for criticism in early 2014 when, under the ending of restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, people from those countries will be free to live and work in the UK even if they do not have skills or qualifications.
Sir Andre, 54, first arrived in the UK in the early 1990s as a Russian citizen with a permit to work as a post-doctoral fellow at Nottingham University. His salary would have been around £27,000 in today's money, meaning that he would have been barred from entry under the minimum salary requirement. He then went to work in the Netherlands where he met a doctoral student, Konstantin Novoselov, who would later share the Nobel prize for the graphene discovery. Although Sir Andre was a Dutch citizen when he returned to the UK in 2001, he said last night that the identification of graphene would "probably not have happened if I had been unable to employ great non-EU PhD students and post-docs, including Novoselov". He now holds dual British and Dutch citizenship and received a knighthood in the 2012 New Year Honours.
The intervention comes as a report published today by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) warns that the Government is likely to miss its "tens of thousands" target. It predicts net migration will fall to 140,000 in 2013 but could rise again in 2014 because fewer students will be leaving the country.
However, in the run-up to the 2015 general election, the latest figures available will be from 2013, giving the Prime Minister the opportunity to argue in the Conservative campaign that immigration is falling.
The IPPR report says that the most significant impact on immigration will come from the changes that have already been implemented in the student visa regime, but that the effect on net immigration is likely to be short-lived.
Mr Osborne told BBC Radio 4's Today programme last week that there had been "enormous competition" for the graphene research to be done elsewhere in the world, rather than in the UK.
He said: "We had to act very quickly... to step in and say we're going to provide funding here in Britain for that activity. That's an example of actually actively backing a winner to keep it in the UK."
Barbara Roche, co-chair of the new group Migration Matters, said: "This illustrates the problem with the implementation of the Government's immigration cap. Some of the globe's most skilled and gifted scientists are finding that before they can even begin to get to grips with the great scientific challenges they must first get to grips with the UK immigration system.
"When we are potentially shutting the door in the face of Nobel- winning physicists then that surely tells us there is something seriously wrong with our current immigration rules."
From 'Windrush' to 'brightest and best'
1948 The Empire Windrush brings 493 passengers to the UK from the West Indies. At the time there were no immigration restrictions in force for members of the British empire to travel to the UK, but immigration was limited by transportation costs. An advert appeared in Jamaica offering free transportation on the Windrush to anyone wanting to work in the UK.
1953-1956 Commonwealth annual immigration rises from 3,000 to 46,800.
1962 Settlement of Commonwealth citizens authorised only for those carrying government-issued employment vouchers.
1964 Between 1964 and 1983, there is broadly minus net immigration.
1965 Wives of British subjects allowed to obtain British nationality.
1968 Asians fleeing Kenya arrive in the UK at the rate of 1,000 a month. Right of entry to UK restricted to those born in the UK or who can demonstrate a "close connection", with at least one parent or grandparent born in the country. Enoch Powell criticises immigration policy in his "Rivers of blood" speech.
1970 "Non-white" UK residents number approximately 1.4 million.
1971 Distinction between Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth immigrants removed.
1972 Conservative government allows immigration of 27,000 Asians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin.
1973 UK joins the European Economic Community.
1979 Immigration exceeds emigration for the first time, by 6,000.
1980 Thatcher government forces people to prove that their primary purpose of marriage is not to secure British residency.
1987 Fines imposed on people who bring illegal immigrants through UK ports.
1993 Maastricht Treaty extends freedom of movement to jobless as well as working EU nationals.
1994 The Major government abolishes embarkation controls, paper records of arrivals and departures from destinations within EU and, in 1998, for the rest of the world.
1997 Labour government abolishes the rule barring entry to the UK for spouses of UK citizens, starting a renewed wave of immigration.
2000 The right of most EU citizens to reside in the UK is no longer conditional.
2002 Immigration into UK exceeds 500,000 a year for the first time.
2003 New rules require non-EU nationals to be given entry clearance to stay longer than six months.
2004 EU enlargement allows citizens of eight new EU nations, including Poles, Latvians and Estonians, to work in UK. Immigration this year is 589,000.
2006 EU citizens and family allowed to live and work in the UK without explicit permission.
2007 Addition of Bulgaria and Romania to EU further raises immigration levels.
2010 Coalition announces skilled immigration cap of 21,700 from outside the EU, cutting 20 per cent off the previous year's cap.
2011 Worker registration scheme for 2004 EU enlargement countries' nationals ends.
2012 Government pledges to reduce migration from 242,000 to "tens of thousands" by 2015. Minimum salary requirement of £31,000 for non-EU nationals introduced to ensure only "brightest and best" come to work in UK. Tougher visa rules for students from outside the EU. London Metropolitan University stripped of its licence to enrol non-EU students. Boris Johnson calls for foreign students to be exempted from the target.
Tali Kord and Jane Merrick