The government’s new immigration system unveiled last week has caused consternation in the museum sector and more widely. The much-promised ‘Australian-style’ points-based system – which will be introduced in January 2021 – is supposed to satisfy immigration hardliners that the UK is reducing the number of people coming to its shores and is taking back control of its borders after Brexit – but it’s a slap in the face to anyone who welcomed free movement in the EU.
What does it mean for museums? The message the government is sending out is that so-called ‘low-skilled’ people should stay away, while so-called ‘highly-skilled’ people are welcome if they meet key criteria. But many commentators have rightly pointed out that the government is a poor judge of what counts as ‘skilled’ work, and that using salary as the main metric for judging someone’s eligibility is a very blunt tool indeed.
The new system will end access to a large pool of labour from the EU which – particularly in larger museums – has brought people into so-called ‘low-skilled’ roles such as hospitality, front-of-house, facilities and support roles. Museums will have to compete in an already tight UK labour market for new recruits in these areas – and that could mean shortages of staff and pressures on museum budgets.
But so-called ‘highly-skilled’ roles will be caught out by the new system as well. Given that the sector is notorious for low pay – particularly at early career stages – this new system will make it impossible for many young people from Europe and beyond to gain employment in the sector – whether in curatorial functions or elsewhere in our organisations. It’s all the more restrictive because the new system also has no route for freelancers to gain entry to the UK labour market.
The government argues that the points-based system will make it possible for ‘talent’ to come in at any level. In one of the few positive changes in the new proposals, the overall salary threshold for entry will be reduced from £30,000 to £25,600. If you have a PhD, want to work in an in-demand sector and speak great English then this threshold can be lowered to £20,480. All this will be small consolation to the many people who can’t find a job offer of more than £25,600 or don’t have the means or desire to do a PhD.
But this debate also poses some difficult questions for museums. We are a sector that thrives on being open to the world and eager to exchange with other cultures. We also have a huge potential workforce here in the UK in the large numbers of people graduating from university courses, apprenticeships and other routes into the sector. There is no prospect of generalist museum work being added to the government’s shortage occupation list, so we need to focus on building the skills and attributes of a diverse museum workforce here, whatever changes are occurring at our borders.
Ultimately, however you feel about it, the government has a huge majority and this new system is going to be introduced. Museums will have to adapt to it – but we should always be conscious that through our exhibitions and outreach we can help to shine a light on its impacts and injustices.