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* Fast-track system set for elite scientists
* Could lift visa cap and other restrictions (Adds reaction, background)
LONDON, Aug 8 (Reuters) - Britain will relax its immigration rules to attract more elite scientists after Brexit by seeking to fast-track visas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday.
"To ensure we continue to lead the way in the advancement of knowledge, we have to not only support the talent that we already have here, but also ensure our immigration system attracts the very best minds from around the world," he said.
The fast-track immigration route, which the government hopes to launch later this year, would be designed to attract elite researchers and specialists in science, engineering and technology, Johnson's office said.
It could abolish the cap on numbers eligible for the current Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visas, ensure dependents of successful applicants can access the British labour market and remove the requirement of having a job offer before arriving.
Other options for the new system, which will be created after talks with leading institutions and universities, could also expand the pool of research institutes and colleges that can endorse candidates and accelerate their path to settlement.
Business groups and universities backed the move, and called for the reforms to go further to help Britain address its skills shortages, particularly in technology.
Leading universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, have warned the sector could be badly damaged if divorce from the European Union goes ahead without a deal, shattering research links and deterring the brightest from studying in Britain.
In the 2018/19 academic year, the number of EU students enrolling in Britain's leading universities fell by 3 percent, with the biggest drop hitting postgraduate research courses.
Johnson, who led the campaign to leave the EU, has advocated an Australian-style, points-based immigration system to give the government more control to attract talent needed to fill gaps in the workforce.
"We want Britain to be the most prosperous economy in Europe with an immigration system that attracts the brightest and best global talent," Home Secretary Priti Patel said.
The Russell Group of 24 leading British universities, which also includes Imperial College London and the London School of Economics, welcomed the move and said it would bolster the country's position as a world leader in research.
"Our universities strive to recruit the most talented staff and students, wherever they are from," the Russell Group's senior policy analyst Hollie Chandler said. "The governments announcement today will help them do so."
The government said it would also provide additional funding for scientists and researchers who had sought EU funding ahead of Britain's exit from the bloc which Johnson has vowed will take place by Oct. 31. (Reporting by William James and Kate Holton; Editing by Michael Holden and Andrew Cawthorne)