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Government announces fast-track visa scheme for scientists and researchers

Government also removes cap on the number of people who can enter the UK via the Exceptional Talent route

The government has announced a new fast-track visa scheme to give certain science, mathematics and research-based talent easier access to the UK.

The new route will have no cap on the number of people who can be accepted, and will make it easier for scientists, mathematicians and researchers to apply to work on projects in the UK.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said: “The UK has a proud history of scientific discovery, but to lead the field and face the challenges of the future, we need to continue to invest in talent and cutting-edge research. That is why, as we leave the EU, I want to send a message that the UK is open to the most talented minds in the world, and stand ready to support them to turn their ideas into reality.”

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will be responsible for endorsing scientists, mathematicians and researchers who apply through the new route, which falls under the UK’s new Global Talent scheme.

Global Talent, which will begin on 20 February 2020, aims to make it easier for skilled talent to come into the UK by removing the cap on the number of people who can enter the country to work via the exceptional talent route. It is a reformed version of the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) route for skilled applicants applying to work in the UK without a job offer.

The Global Talent route will also waive the “absences” rules for researchers and their dependants if they are needed for work on other projects overseas, and will speed up the path to settlement for researchers and scientists who are endorsed via this route.

The Global Talent reforms tie in with the government’s plans to invest up to £300m in experimental and “imaginative” mathematical science research by the “best global talent” over the next five years.

Home secretary Priti Patel said: “To keep the UK at the forefront of innovation, we are taking decisive action to maximise the number of individuals using the Global Talent route, including world-class scientists and top researchers, who can benefit from fast-track entry into the UK.”

The applications process for other fields included in the Exceptional Talent route, which includes some digital talent, will remain the same, but there will no longer be a cap on the number of people who can be accepted into the UK through this route.

The government has expressed an aim to move towards a points-based system for immigration into the UK, similar to that of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Austria, by January 2021 at the earliest.

When looking into this possibility recently, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa system “does not work well” because the skills bar is set too high, leading to fewer people being accepted than the yearly cap of 2,000 applicants.

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The MAC found that Tech Nation provides the largest number of endorsements, and is the only body that has ever exceeded its initial quota. This, it speculated, could be because having a job offer when applying to work in the UK may be less common for people working in digital, for example if an applicant intends to work with a startup that may pay in equity.

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

Removing the cap on the number of people who can be accepted via this route is a step in the right direction for encouraging overseas digital talent into the UK, but some in the tech industry say more needs to be done to keep attracting skilled workers to the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors.

There are fears in the tech sector that the UK’s decision to leave the EU may cause the pool of tech talent coming from overseas to work for tech firms in the UK to dry up.

When considering the impact of Brexit on immigration policy and the tech sector, Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, said the sector will be keeping a “close eye” on rules governing the movement of talent.

“The introduction of a Global Talent visa is a step in the right direction to attract exceptional talent here, but it remains to be seen whether supply will come to meet demand in a sector crying out for skilled talent,” he said.

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