Science Friction? Britain Lifts The Cap On Tech Visas But Will It Be Enough To Save Startups From Skills Shortages?

What’s in a name? On Thursday of this week, business leaders, journalists and officials gathered for a briefing on Britain’s newly-minted Global Talent visa system. Organised by Tech Nation – a government-backed body tasked with supporting the development of the innovation economy – the event provided an opportunity to explain how the new regime would function and how it would differ from its “Exceptional Talent visa predecessor. 

Both systems are intended to do the same thing – namely to make it easier for highly skilled people to come to the U.K. to work. At one level you could see this as a rebranding exercise. The government is very keen on talking up the idea of “global Britain” in the post-Brexit era. So, why not have a “Global Talent” visa system as well.  

An Extended Range

But behind the name change, there are other differences, the most obvious of these being that there will no longer a cap on the number of visas that can be issued. In theory then, under the new rules, an unlimited number of people could be granted the right to work in Britain, as long as they meet the talent criteria as defined by the Government.  In addition, the scheme has been extended to cover deep science and research.  

The avowed intention of the change – as spelt out by Tech Nation – is to ensure that Britain continues to attract skilled people from around the world. Arguably, the commitment to luring talent should offer a crumb of comfort to those who believe that the U.K’s departure from the E.U. will result in innovation economy startups facing damaging skills shortages as the flow of European workers dries up. But here’s the question. Can a visa-based system really help to counterbalance the impact of E.U. Freedom of Movement ceasing to be a reality in Britain ? 

A Period Of Transition

It has to be said, we are talking about two different things. Freedom of Movement was (and will be until the end of the agreed U.K./EU transition period) an acknowledgement and manifestation of common citizenship. Tier 1 visas, on the other hand, are a tool that sits within a controlled immigration policy. However, both provide a route for talented people to come to Britain to feed a tech industry that is disproportionately large in comparison to the home-grown skills available. And when U.K, recruiters can no longer take advantage of  E.U. Freedom of Movement rules, the points-based immigration approach to immigration favored by Government is going to have to take up the slack. 

Heavy Lifting  

And in the case of the digital economy, that will involve some heavy lifting. According to Tech Nation, demand for experienced and highly skilled people to work in the digital and tech industry in the UK has grown dramatically over the past four years. To take an example, demand for a Full Stack Developer more than tripled between 2015 and 2018. In short, if U.K. tech is to thrive, there has to be a convenient and workable route for overseas workers to come into the labour market.

A Two-Stage Process

So how will the new system help? Well, Global Talent visas will be allocated to people working in digital technology, science and culture. Applications will be open both to entrepreneurs and those with technical skills. To secure a visa, an applicant must first approach an “endorsing body.” In the case of digital tech, the body in question is Tech Nation, while scientists must make their pitch to U.K. Research and Innovation (UKRI).  

Essentially, the endorsing bodies assess the applications and then make recommendations to the government department responsible for issuing visas – the Home Office – which then makes a final decision. It is perfectly possible that the Home Office will veto an application even after a recommendation is made, so given that it costs £456 to get an endorsement, there a degree of financial risk, which could deter some people.

However, Tech Nation, figures relating to the previous Exceptional Talent system suggest that last-minute setbacks are rare. Since that scheme was launched in 2014, 1,200 tech visas have been endorsed and 98 percent of those were approved by the Home Office officials.   

So, Tech Nation, CEO Gerard Grech is optimistic that the U.K. will attract increasing numbers of qualified people from around the world when the new system kicks in. As evidence, he cites increasing numbers of visa applications under the old system. 

2019 saw the UK attracting 33% of all European Tech investment and a 44% rise in visa applications for digital technology expertise from over 50 countries. Today’s announcement of expanding the route to include deep science and research expertise and abolishing the cap will help ensure the best and brightest talent can continue to contribute to the UK’s thriving digital tech sector,” he said.  

It has to be said that the number of approved visas is relatively small when stretched across a six-year period. What’s more, only around half of the total number of applications (2,400) were endorsed by Tech Nation. 

Bumps In The Road

And maybe that’s where the potential problem lies. Under Freedom of Movement rules, a technologist or an entrepreneur from Estonia, Germany, Hungary or indeed anywhere in Europe could simply up sticks and relocate to Britain without encountering any bureaucracy. And given London’s pre-eminence as a tech hub, a lot of people did choose to make that journey. A visa-based system – even one that is friendly to high-level talent – puts obstacles in the way. Not large obstacles, perhaps, but it’s important to remember that Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona and a host of other cities are also looking for talent. Any friction could make London less attractive.  

The Brexit transition period runs until the end of 2020 and until then Freedom of Movement is in force and the points-based Tier 1 visa system applies only to people outside the European Economic Area. Post-transition, Britain’s immigration rules will apply equally to people within Europe and from elsewhere in the world.  

At this point, no one can really say if Britain will face a talent shortage. What you can say is that Europeans who seek to work in Britain will have more hurdles to jump from 2021 onwards. Many may choose to go elsewhere.   

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