UK government increases efforts to address tech skills shortages

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The UK government has announced that the number of visas available per year under the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent programme is to be doubled to 2,000 in what is being seen as a major boost to the UK’s globally respected, economically successful technology sector.   

The Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa route is available to those who are considered to be world leaders in their field and whose presence in the UK would drive skills development and further success in the wider industry. There are currently five endorsement bodies which assess applications though a peer review process for leaders - and emerging leaders - in science, engineering, humanities, medicine, the arts and digital technology. Currently each of the endorsing bodies has in the region of 150-250 endorsements allocated, though they can borrow unused allocations from other endorsement bodies where necessary.   

The new system retains the base levels of endorsements per body but will also provide an additional one thousand endorsements on a first come, first serve basis. This will be of particular use to the endorsement body for digital technology, Tech Nation, which has reached its cap in recent years and is looking to market the visa scheme more widely.    

Digital Technology is a major success story for the UK with Tech Nation set up by the government to foment the technological revolution. The body, first founded as Tech City, is now known as Tech Nation to reflect the growth of the tech industry outside of London. Together with Tech North (as part of the Northern Powerhouse strategy), these bodies help enterprising start-ups with topics such as finance, organisation, marketing, and immigration amongst many others. It’s a government funded organisation run as a private company and is considered a great success.   

The raising of the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent cap was announced in conjunction with plans to invest £61 million into the tech sector with funds available to encourage: hubs in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Birmingham amongst others; research for public services; and technology education. It’s clear that the government is keen to protect the golden goose from the UK’s soon to be post-Brexit rivals in the EU. The feeling is that the sector is young enough to be innovative and exciting, but has shallow roots and could yet be tempted away by the seemingly greener grass on the other side of the Channel.     

On 15 November, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, said at a Downing Street reception for the tech sector: “Our digital tech sector is one of the UK’s fastest-growing industries, and is supporting talent, boosting productivity, and creating hundreds of thousands of good, high-skilled jobs up and down the country. It is absolutely right that this dynamic sector, which makes such an immense contribution to our economic life and to our society, has the full backing of Government.” 

The cap rise is interesting, because arguably there was very little call for it. The existing cap had not been reached to a significant level and the number of applications had remained in the low hundreds.  The move is largely symbolic for the time being but it will accompany a major drive to increase the number of applications under the route and it will certainly raise awareness of the availability of these visas.   

One possible side effect of the increased supply is a potential lowering of the bar. Peer reviews, while meant to be based solely on the application in front of the reviewer, will often be compared – however subconsciously – with other applications. If there is more room for endorsements, then assessors may not feel the need to ration the visas as they may have felt the need to do in the past. This might lead to the standard required being lowered slightly or assessors being willing to take a punt on borderline cases. It will never be government policy to lower standards, of course, but the visas will now be provided to the top 1,200 applicants rather than the top 200 – this will naturally lead to some dilution.    

Traditionally, successful applications for the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent route under the Tech Nation scheme tend to be from those in the digital tech world who have achieved something special and want to bring those ideas to the UK. Alternatively, under Exceptional Promise, they have demonstrated the potential – perhaps through their academics or first business venture – to be a tech world leader. They are not necessarily software developers or AI researchers and can be from the business support side of an organisation, but they must have world class referees, evidence of their ability and successes, as well as an idea of what they would like to do in the UK. The government is keen that this route be used for those who are striving to achieve growth and success in the industry. 

Interestingly, the visa, once granted, has little compliance or regulation attached to it, so holders are given a free hand to do as they wish – they only need to demonstrate that they’ve earned some money from tech work at some point during their time in the UK. Unlike the Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa, for example, it grants holders a relatively free hand to experiment and take risks without worrying about losing the right to work or reside in the UK. For this reason alone, it should attract more applications and it’s one of the few visa routes where the government would be thrilled to see an increase. 

The Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa also has no 12 month cooling off period – which prevents back-to-back visa applications - unlike Tier 2, which means that, if you do not meet the residence requirements for Indefinite Leave to Remain, you can simply apply to extend until you do. All in all, it’s an excellent visa and one of the cheapest. 

The raising of the cap may be perceived as largely symbolic, but it’s a step in the right direction and another indication that the government is determined to protect and nurture the UK’s tech powerhouse from post-Brexit rivals.

Thomas Marsom, Solicitor at Fragomen 

Image Credit: Duncan Andison / Shutterstock