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UK’s Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa system ‘does not work well’, says MAC

During a review of whether the government should introduce a points-based system for migration, the Migration Advisory Committee claims the current Tier 1 system for exceptional talent is not fit for purpose

The current Tier 1 system for admitting exceptional talent to the UK without a job offer in place “does not work well” and should be changed, according to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

The MAC was asked by the government in 2019, with the Brexit date looming, to look into the possibility of a points-based migration system. While making recommendations for what a new system could look like, the MAC said the current Tier 1 method for exceptional talent was not a good one.

Instead, the system should be focused on high-potential candidates, it said, chosen through an “expression of interest” system where interested parties are given the option to apply for a visa if pulled from a monthly pool.

Alan Manning, chair of the MAC, said in the report: “The current work visa for those without a job offer – Tier 1, Exceptional Talent – does not work well. The skills bar for entry is set far too high, targeted at those at the very top of their field, and is too risk averse. Many of those at whom it is targeted would not enter the UK without a job offer.”

The MAC looked into two existing systems for skilled workers to enter the UK – the visa route for entry into the UK with a job offer (Tier 2, General visa) and the visa route for entry without a job offer (Tier 1, Exceptional Talent visa) – to assess whether a points-based system would be an appropriate way forward after the end of the Brexit transition period.

Because the Tier 1 route has an extremely high bar when it comes to the skills needed to successfully apply, the MAC claims many of the people the route targets wouldn’t come to the UK without a job offer already in place.  

The MAC found that despite the cap of 2,000 visas allowed through this route, only 600 main applicants had been admitted over the past year.

“The current work visa for those without a job offer – Tier 1, Exceptional Talent – does not work well”
Alan Manning, Migration Advisory Committee

Currently, to apply for a Tier 1 visa, candidates outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) have to work in a qualifying field and be endorsed by a designated competent body – for digital technology, this is Tech Nation – as a recognised leader, or an emerging leader.

The MAC found Tech Nation provides the largest number of endorsements, and is the only body that has ever exceeded its initial quota.

Having a job offer when applying to work in the UK may be less common for those working in digital, the MAC speculated, for example if an applicant aims to work with a startup which may pay in equity, which could be the reason Tech Nation offers so many endorsements.

The Tier 1 route also has very stringent judging criteria for who it considers “exceptional talent”.

How would a points-based system work?

The MAC recommended that, if the government did want to move towards a points-based system, the Tier 1 application process should be modified or replaced with a system whereby those without a job offer show an “expression of interest” to be submitted to a pool.

Each month, names would be drawn from this pool and sent an invitation to apply for a visa, subject to a cap.

It was also suggested this system focus more on allowing talented people with high future potential to enter the UK, rather than heavily focusing on people who are already extremely skilled in their field, and selection should be based on a “tradeable” points system where different traits of the applications are given different numbers of points.

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“It should be focused more on those with high potential than established exceptional talent,” said Manning. “In doing this, the government should proceed with caution and have limits on the number of visas issued. No system for picking winners will be perfect and there will inevitably be some admitted on this route where promise does not deliver.”

The MAC said those with the skills the government wants, such as people with skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) or from the creative industries, should be given a higher points score during the application process.

The report said: “If the government wants to introduce a points-based system on entry, it should consider modifying the current Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) drawing on best practice from other countries and not repeating the mistakes of earlier UK points-based systems for those without a job offer.”

Effective migration requires better use of data

The MAC advised deciding ahead of time how many points to give to each applicant’s characteristic, but to ensure data is used to predict which of these characteristics are indicators of success. Whether new systems are effective can only be measured through “robust plans to collect high-quality data”, it said.

The MAC also claimed the government had problems accessing existing data and merging datasets properly, and highlighted areas where there should be more data collection.

Going forward, the MAC said changes should only be made if data was collected to measure the outcomes. It suggested the Home Office “improve its retention” of historical data, and keep that data in a format that can be used to assess the outcome of policies.

It also said the government should link relevant datasets and share data with the MAC to track employment outcomes, among other things, for migrants coming into the UK.

“There may be some sectors and parts of the UK in which the hiring of migrant workers is no longer a viable business strategy; there may be other sectors that are over-enthusiastic users,” the report said. “Good data and evaluation are vital to ensure that effective monitoring is in place and necessary adjustments are made in a timely fashion.”

When it comes to overseas skilled workers who already have job offers in the UK, currently covered by the Tier 2 General visa process, the MAC stated that while this route began as a point-based system, it has developed beyond this, and all successful applicants now have to meet all criteria, so there is no point claiming it’s point-based.

The MAC said this framework did not need to change, as the current combination of skills eligibility and salary threshold worked well.

It should remain an employer-sponsored route with a salary threshold, the MAC said, but it should expand to include medium and high-skilled workers, with a simplified process, and the cap and Resident Labour Market Test abolished.

When the UK leaves the European Union, it is likely the Tier 2 route used to decide whether non-EEA candidates can apply for jobs will also apply for those in the EEA. While the MAC claimed a points-based system focused on skills rather than nationality might make it easier for higher skilled workers to come to the UK once free movement for EEA migrants ends, it also said there were risks.

Previously, the MAC advised the government to abolish caps on the Tier 2 visa to make it easier for skilled workers to come to the UK if free movement were to end for EEA migrants once Brexit is finalised.

Between December 2017 and March 2018, thousands of people who were eligible for Tier 2 visas were refused because of current government caps. Around 3,500 of those refusals were for people skilled in STEM fields and medicine, among other skills the UK is in need of, such as STEM teaching.

As well as recommendations for a skills-based work migration system, the report made recommendations for changing the way settlement in the UK is decided, and how salary thresholds should work going forward, all of which may be implemented by the end of the Brexit transition period in 2021 at the earliest.

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