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Tech reaction to UK’s upcoming immigration rules

The government has outlined its plans for a new points-based immigration system to ensure only skilled workers can enter the UK – but what does the technology sector think?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: What will points-based immigration mean for IT recruitment?

With the UK officially no longer in the European Union (EU), the government has announced that a points-based immigration system will be introduced in January 2021.

The aim of the system is to allow skilled talent from outside the UK access to the UK job market, while also ending free movement of labour and giving the UK more control over its borders.

Home secretary Priti Patel said: “We’re ending free movement, taking back control of our borders and delivering on the people’s priorities by introducing a new UK points-based immigration system, which will bring overall migration numbers down. We will attract the brightest and the best from around the globe, boosting the economy and our communities, and unleash this country’s full potential.”

So, after Brexit presented itself as a huge concern for IT skills and recruitment, what will the new system mean for technology skills and recruitment in the UK?

Points-based system

The new points-based immigration system will award points to applicants based on certain criteria, such as skills, qualifications, salaries, professions and the ability to speak English. It will apply to both EU and non-EU citizens seeking to work in the UK.

The government’s policy statement outlining the new system said it was geared towards giving priority to talented, skilled individuals, such as “scientists, engineers, academics and other highly skilled workers”, to enter the UK.

In an analysis of the announcement, trade body TechUK said: “At the heart of the policy statement is science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) talent, with explicit mention made of the need to attract those with specific STEM skills. For the tech sector, there are many elements in the policy paper that we can welcome. For example, removing the arbitrary cap on talent and the decision to cease use of the Resident Labour Market Test, both of which will allow the sector to continue to thrive.”

But TechUK also said salary is not necessarily an indicator of skill, and criticised the lack of clarity about how an applicant’s English language skill will be assessed.

For a general work visa, all applicants will be required to have a job offer to enter the UK, with a minimum salary threshold of £25,600.

In some cases, points will be tradeable, and so some exceptions will be made when it comes to the salary threshold, for example if the applicant is a researcher in a STEM subject with a relevant PhD degree, or is on the shortage occupations list which will be reviewed by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), the minimum salary threshold will be reduced to £20,480.

Applicants will need 70 points to be granted a visa.

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The current Global Talent route for highly skilled workers, which until recently was known as the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent route, will also be expanded in January 2021 to cover EU citizens, as well as those outside the European Economic Areas (EEA), allowing very talented people to enter the UK without a job offer if they reach the requirements for a visa and are endorsed by a relevant competent body. Rules around this type of application were recently adapted to make it easier for people with a STEM background to apply.

Tech Nation, the body responsible for endorsing and processing applications through this route for the digital technology sector, said the changes to the Global Talent route would help the UK’s digital sector continue to attract digital talent from around the world.

Pointing out that demand for tech jobs has grown in recent years, Tech Nation said it had seen a 44% rise in Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa applications in 2019, and had endorsed more than 1,200 applications since it was launched in 2014.

Gerard Grech, chief executive of Tech Nation, said:Last year saw the UK attract 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.”

Since the UK voted to leave the EU, emphasis has been put on ensuring the country develops its own technology talent pipeline to prevent the UK falling off a “tech talent cliff edge”.

Russ Shaw, founder and CEO of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, said the new rules raise more questions than answers.

“A Brexit transition leaves us at a crossroads and the points-based immigration system outlined by the Home Office is potentially leading us down the wrong path,” he said. “The latest proposal sends the wrong message to the international tech community, dissuading overseas workers from setting up in the UK.

“For the UK to lead on the world stage, attract investment and grow the best companies, the government must revise its plans and send a more positive message to international tech talent that the UK is open to them”
Russ Shaw, Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates

“While it is encouraging to see the introduction of a lower salary cap for the Tier 2 visa – an issue the tech community has been consistently arguing for – many problems remain unsolved.

“How are we ensuring that companies are fully equipped and supported to adapt to this new system? Where are the new, more affordable and revised routes for Tier 1 applicants and sponsors? What are we doing to retain international talent, particularly students who have come to the UK to study and want to transfer from Tier 4 student visas to Tier 2 visas?”

Tier 2 visas are the current route for skilled workers who already have a job offer to apply to come to the UK.

Shaw said the Brexit decision in 2016 had further exacerbated an existing talent gap, “showing a tangible impact in a drop in the number of Tier 2 visa applications”.

The Brexit vote also led to a record number of EU workers choosing not to stay in the UK.

Shaw added: “Although we are early in the transition period, the new system unfortunately provides more questions than answers by jeopardising the status of London, and the UK more broadly, as a premier global tech hub.

“Talent is the lifeblood of any thriving innovation centre. For the UK to lead on the world stage, attract investment and grow the best companies, the government must revise its plans and send a more positive message to international tech talent that the UK is open to them.” 

Automate and digitise

Whereas the previous immigration system for people wanting to work in the UK required applicants to have a degree-level qualification, applicants now only need to be qualified up to A-level or equivalent. The hope is that this will give the UK labour market access to a larger pool of skilled workers.

There will also be a points-based system to ensure people from around the world, both inside and outside the EU, can attend UK universities as long as they have an offer from an approved educational institution, can support themselves financially, and speak English.

But the government also announced there would be no visa route for low-skilled workers who want to enter the country for low-skilled, low-paid jobs.

It claimed that 70% of the current EU workforce would not meet the requirements for the points-based route, and said there should be a reduction in the number of immigrants in the future.

The government report said: “We will not introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route. We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust.”

TechUK’s analysis said this encouragement to “automate and digitise processes” in a bid to reduce reliance on low-skilled labour could save time and money, but warned that the 10 months the UK has to prepare for the new immigration laws is not long enough.

“The UK absolutely does need to make greater use of digital technologies in the workplace – they save time, money and will increase productivity and growth,” said TechUK. “But the implementation of these new technologies takes time and requires a change in culture at the leadership level and an acceptance from the workforce. Ten months doesn’t seem all that long.”

Looking at the tech sector from a hardware manufacturing perspective, Bev White, chief executive at the Harvey Nash Group, said: “This system could have an impact on the tech sector in other parts of the value chain. For instance, UK manufacturers producing tech products, and their associated components, will find it more difficult in the future to resource the workers that assemble these products.”

Cost for startups

Highlighting some of the costs currently associated with applying for a non-EEA visa, TechUK said many smaller businesses currently could not afford overseas talent, or found visa application processes complex.

Dom Hallas, executive director at not-for-profit Coadec, said the new rules would “restrict the ability of startups to hire talent from outside the UK”, and although dropping the cap on skilled labour and removing the resident labour market test are steps in the right direction, he said there was a “long way to go”.

“We are asking the world’s best and brightest to prove their worth by arbitrary standards of value set by the British government, based on language skills, academic performance and income. In doing so, we are implicitly saying that people who don’t meet those criteria don’t have value to Britain”
Daumantas Dvilinskas, TransferGo

“There is currently a lack of information on what this policy means in practice,” said Hallas. “Coadec has always been clear that the visa process needs speeding up if startups aren’t able to hire EU citizens with ease. The government has today pledged to reduce the time it takes for work visas to be granted to eight weeks. That’s better, but not good enough – we need to make it faster.

“The lack of clarity, the costs of the system and the continued crippling bureaucracy can only damage startups. There is still so much to do to protect our ecosystem – if you want to help do it, let us know.”

While conceding that the new rules may allow skilled tech talent access to the UK job market, Daumantas Dvilinskas, CEO of financial technology (fintech) startup TransferGo, said the “principles underpinning the policy” could cast the UK in a bad light.

“While technically the new immigration rules might allow technology talent through, we have to think through the wider implications of this,” he said. “We are asking the world’s best and brightest to prove their worth by arbitrary standards of value set by the British government, based on language skills, academic performance and income. In doing so, we are implicitly saying that people who don’t meet those criteria don’t have value to Britain.

“As a company, this isn’t how we think. We were founded by immigrants, for immigrants. We are built on diversity. We believe in constant learning and growth and helping people get skilled through experience, not just expecting them to arrive with perfect skills.”

Many tech experts still feel there are unanswered questions about the new immigration rules, although the government has said the system may have to be adjusted over time.

Harvey Nash’s White said that although there will be “winners and losers” when the new system is put in place next January, the overall message is a good one.

“This system sends a positive message that tech UK’s doors are wide open, and that tech companies can continue to access highly skilled talent from all over the world, and at the same time the UK will need to continue to work hard at developing its ‘brand Britain’ reputation as an international destination for the world’s top talent,” she said.

“Overall, we expect the tech sector to come out fairly unscathed from this new system. There may even be an upside in the fact that we can more easily reach talent in new markets. We’ve been very lucky that our country has traditionally been seen as a highly desirable place to develop tech skills. It’s so important that we continue to be seen in that light.”

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