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Tier 2 visa refusals paints grim picture for UK tech skills

More than 3,000 visas for people skilled in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) roles were refused entry to the UK since December 2017

Thousands of people eligible for Tier 2 skilled visas in the UK were refused between December 2017 and March 2018 due to government visa caps, according to data uncovered by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case).

Around 3,500 out of the 6,080 visas refused were for people skilled in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) and medicine, among other skills the UK is in need of, such as Stem teaching.

Out of these skilled areas, technology suffered among the highest rejections of Tier 2 visas, with 1,226 of the refusals between December 2017 and March 2018 being in IT and technology roles alone.

To gain these figures from the Home Office, Case had to file a request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, and Case executive director, Sarah Main, said the government’s cap on the number of Tier 2 visas that can be granted over an annual period only serves to add to the uncertainty around skilled workers that already exists in the UK.

“Across the country, businesses and public services are being blocked at the last hurdle from recruiting the people they need, including in health, engineering and tech, due to the visa cap. Employers need a predictable immigration system. The Tier 2 cap increases uncertainty,” she said.

Since the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, an emphasis has been put on ensuring the UK develops its own technology talent pipeline to prevent the UK falling off of a “tech talent cliff edge”.

But the UK is still suffering from a technology skills gap despite efforts to make sure young people are more Stem savvy, and since the Brexit vote a record number of EU workers are choosing not to stay in the UK.

Case said the large number of denials for skilled visa applications is sending a “damaging message” about the UK’s willingness to take in skilled workers, and Main said in the future the UK should adopt an immigration policy that does not cap international talent.

“The cap is beginning to cause damage and it needs to be addressed quickly,” said Main. “In the immediate term, shortage and PhD level roles should be made exempt from the cap. This would be in line with the priority already afforded to these roles and would create the headroom for other vital roles.”

Since December 2017, the limit for skilled visa applications was reached more quickly than usual.

Jackie Penlington, senior associate at law firm Stevens & Bolton, said that in December 2017 all applications Stevens & Bolton made on behalf of clients for applicants earning less than £55,000 were rejected, and in January all those earning under £50,000 were rejected.

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Many are calling for the cap to be removed because of the potential damage it is doing to UK businesses, which some claim is contradictory to the government’s goals for technology skills and innovation laid out in the Industrial Strategy.

Peter Finegold, head of education for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “The UK’s future prosperity is reliant on having the right people with the right set of skills. The revelation that skilled engineers are not being allowed into the UK as a result of the ‘blunt instrument’ of a visa cap, will raise real concerns for large engineering employers and small businesses alike.”      

The UK is trying to boost its internal Stem skills through its computing curriculum and an emphasis on apprenticeships, but this does not address the immediate need for skilled workers in some fields.

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, called for a “revamp” of the UK’s visa system, and more collaboration between industry and government to ensure the skills shortage in UK tech is addressed.

“These figures clearly indicate that we have reached a crisis point that requires immediate action. The need for reform has never been as urgent,” he said.

“The private sector must now work more closely than ever with government leaders to ensure there is an understanding of the impact the shortage of skills is having on the tech sector. It is vital that the two parties come together to guarantee that businesses have the access to talent that is critical for success.”

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