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Government hails expansion of Tech Nation Visa as an answer to the challenges of Brexit for tech sector

View profile for Kathryn Dooks

The government has announced that it is doubling the number of Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visas available to leading figures in technology, science, the arts and the creative industries, in response to Brexit. 

This has been announced in a package of measures designed to boost the Tech sector following Brexit, including additional investment in expanding Tech City UK into a nationwide network called Tech Nation and a fund for helping public services embrace AI. However, the expansion of the visa scheme will also benefit the other sectors covered by the Exceptional Talent visa, including sciences and the arts.

Currently, 5 endorsing organisations can recognise up to 1,000 individuals per year in total, who are either existing global leaders or promising future leaders in these sectors (those endorsing organisations are: Tech City UK, Arts Council England, The British Academy, The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering). Individuals who have been endorsed can then apply for a visa to live and work in the UK for up to 5 years, with a view to obtaining permanent residence after that 5 year period.

But the visa scheme is perceived as difficult to negotiate and therefore expensive. It is also badly publicised. Furthermore, most tech business aren’t struggling to hire or obtain visas for leaders in their field (such individuals are usually either the founders of  the business themselves, so eligible for an Entrepreneur/investor visa or are sufficiently highly paid that employers can rely on exemptions from the Tier 2 visa route, meaning roles don’t need to be advertised before a visa can be obtained). The real challenge for most employers in the tech sector is in obtaining relatively standard software developers in sufficient numbers (and retaining them) given the current skills shortages in the UK, particularly for SMEs who are competing for talent with the likes of Facebook and Google, who have much deeper pockets.

The government is expanding the Exceptional Talent scheme to 2,000 visas per year, split amongst the 5 bodies dependent on need.

However, between April 2014 and September 2016, only 257 individuals applied to Tech City UK for endorsement and only 187 applicants were granted endorsement in that 18 month period. In the 2016/17 financial year there were 380 applicants and 260 endorsements were granted.

Assuming that the additional visas are broadly split evenly between the 5 endorsing bodies, a further 200 visas per year for the Tech sector doesn’t come anywhere near addressing the challenges which the sector will face in recruiting and retaining the best tech talent following Brexit. Britain is already suffering a tech skills shortage, without cutting off the supply of talent from across the EU after Brexit. These are tiny measures which don’t even scratch the surface of the issue. 

The government has commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to report on the predicted impact of Brexit and make recommendations on future immigration policy – we await that report with much interest and trepidation.