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Is the government doing enough to encourage digital international talent to the UK?

Caroline Baldwin
Ezine

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Last week the government made a series of changes to the immigration rules which it hoped would help UK businesses employ skilled workers from overseas.

The Home Office has opened up its Exceptional Talent visa to provide specific routes that international digital technologists can apply for.

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Tech City UK has become involved in the process; these visa applicants will go through Tech City who will then choose whether or not to endorse the highly skilled workers.

The Home Office has said that through this endorsement, the top innovators and professionals will be able to come to the UK without the need for a sponsoring employer.

Removing the need for sponsorship?

Last September, Computer Weekly spoke to a number of startup technology companies who are finding it increasingly difficult to hire employees from outside the UK due to the lengthy and complicated visa application and sponsoring process.

Victoria Sharkey, managing partner at the immigration law firm MediVisas, said, "Startups have had to jump through many hoops to get a sponsorship licence so they can hire from abroad. The startup has to collect and submit original documentation and if there is a problem and it is rejected, the employer has to start the process again.

"This all takes time, even when no mistakes are made, and of course startups are subject to closer scrutiny," Sharkey said. 

"We have seen companies apply for sponsor licences and wait for four, five, even six months to get the approval, and often by the time it comes the applicant has either had to leave the UK or has got fed up of waiting and has taken a different job."

But these recent changes made by the Home Office claim to remove the need for startups to become sponsors to international workers who choose this route into the UK.

The changes are due to come in from April 6, and with Tech City‚ endorsement, individuals from oversees with exceptional talent would be able to make an application directly to Tech City UK. The individual case would then be reviewed to see if it meets certain criteria, before the person is endorsed and recommended to the Home Office.

No ties to a specific startup

But the Home Office told Computer Weekly that the visa has been created with the individual in mind, rather than the startup, which would also mean the individual wouldn't necessarily have to work for one specific startup company, as would be the case if going down the sponsorship route.

Tech London Advocates (TLA), the private sector led coalition of tech experts, has recently been working with the Home Office to facilitate growth across the UK tech community and to open up the restrictive immigration laws.

Leslie Sarma, associate at Penningtons and immigration working group lead for TLA welcomes the change to the Exceptional Talent visa and thinks it will help the UK‚ tech sector to grow. But she said the Tech City endorsements are limited in number and reiterates that successful applicants will not be tied to a specific employer.

"For this reason, we believe there is still work to be done in assisting rapid growth startups looking to staff up quickly, as well as established tech sector companies requiring volume hiring on a project by project basis," said Sarma.

No real difference to startups

Sharkey, on the other hand, does not think the changes will make any real difference to start-ups.

"It may benefit a handful of highly skilled entrepreneurs who want to move to the UK or relocate their companies, but the category is still very restrictive."

Sharkey said the requirements for this particular‚ Exceptional Talent visa are very restrictive.

"There is no indication that this is going to be any different for this group of theoretically eligible people," said Sharkey.

Focus on academics and PHDs

Alastair Paterson, CEO, Digital Shadows also pointed out that the criteria for this visa is directed towards academics and researchers with a PhD or equivalent.

"How many of the founders, CEOs and CTOs of the top Silicon Valley tech firms have PhDs? Not many," he said. "We need to be attracting and retaining the top software engineering and entrepreneurial talent from around the world that may not have won a 'prestigious internationally recognised prize' or have a PhD but do provide the engine room of any startup community."

"As such the new measures make no difference to us as a startup since the people we are trying to hire from overseas will not be eligible for this new arrangement."

Sharkey agreed, adding that "Most start-ups who want a regular decent, qualified programmer are not going to be in a position to recruit the Exceptional Talent candidates anyway."

It seems that while the Home Office is hoping these changes to immigration rules will help UK businesses employ skilled international workers, the changes will have a minimal effect on how startups currently struggle to hire people from abroad in order to quickly grow their businesses.


The Exceptional Talent visa in numbers

The Exceptional Talent visa consists of 1,000 visas per year, which are usually given to world-class scientists, artists and performers. The "Tech City visa" will amount to 200 from the allotted 1,000 places.

Back in September last year, Boris Johnson announced a London Visa to make it easier for talented technologists from around the world to get jobs in the city. This was 100 visas that were taken from the allotted Exceptional Talent visa, which the Home Office said will continue to exist.

"As the total number of people on the, 'Exceptional Talent visa' is still restricted to 1000 per year, this 200 will result in a decrease in the numbers of Exceptional Talent engineers and scientists who can come to the UK," said Victoria Sharkey, managing partner at the immigration law firm MediVisas. "The government are being somewhat disingenuous when they say this is going to help the technology sector."


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