The Government’s new changes to the Tier 1 visa route, including a rebranding to ‘Global Talent’, is a strong first step in making the immigration system work for research. Here’s why.
What is Tier 1?
At first glance, last week’s visa announcement might have looked like window-dressing and a narrow reform for ‘top scientists’. But the number of people who stand to benefit from Tier 1 visas will grow substantially, with no cap on numbers.
First, some context.
At the moment, only a small number of senior researchers are eligible for a ‘Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent)’ visa, with most skilled workers from outside the EU applying through the ‘Tier 2 (General)’ route instead. The benefits of Tier 1 compared with Tier 2 are significant: you aren’t tied to the job or employer who sponsored you, there’s no minimum salary requirement, no need to have taken an English language test (unless your employer demands it), and you can apply for settlement after just three years, rather than five. But you’re essentially only eligible for a Tier 1 visa if you have a senior appointment (e.g. professorship) at a UK university or research institute, or if you hold an approved fellowship.
Last week’s announcement reveals that the government is expanding the criteria for who can apply for a Tier 1 visa by adding a whole new strand to the route, labelled ‘endorsed funders’. Anyone who is either named personally on a grant or has a defined position on that grant is now potentially eligible for Tier 1, if their grant is from an endorsed funder. This means we’re not just talking about professors – other members of the team can be included, even technicians if they’re specifically working on that grant, as long as they are employed by or have a job offer at a UK university or research organisation.
The list of endorsed funders is very broad, and it’s not just limited to ‘STEM’ – it includes all of the UK research councils, alongside charities and foundations such as Wellcome, Cancer Research UK, and the British Heart Foundation. It includes Horizon 2020 funding, and a range of other international funders.
Naturally there are some extra criteria. The grant has to be of a reasonable size and length (£30k, 2 years), the individual has to be spending a reasonable amount of time on the grant, and it needs to have been awarded through a peer review process. But these are proportionate.
When these reforms were mooted back in August, you could be forgiven for being a little cynical. Uncapping the Tier 1 route and expanding the number of eligible fellowships was welcome, but perhaps underwhelming. There was a strong flavour of only being interested in ‘elite STEM researchers’, which of course is a subset of the research workforce, and a group that largely has access to Tier 1 already. We can now see that the policy has developed significantly in the last few months and is much broader.
More to come?
It’s always tempting to be cynical about government announcements, and to try to spot the deficiencies or the ‘what-abouts’. There’s plenty more to do in this space; visa costs are still a big issue and the Immigration Health Surcharge will increase from £400 to £625 per year. The UK system is substantially more expensive than other countries looking to attract researchers, which will hold us back.
Wellcome is continuing to work with the Home Office to fix problems with visitor visas for academic conferences being refused, and of course there will be wider reforms to the immigration system in the future.
But it’s clear from the No.10 press release that this is just the first step in making the immigration system work for research, and that we should expect to see more in the future. Immigration policy is a tool for delivering on government priorities, and the Global Talent visa will bring much-needed coherence to the Government’s support for science.
These reforms point to a growing understanding in Whitehall of the problems of the immigration system for research, and a willingness to fix them. This is a big step forward and we should recognise that UKRI, the Home Office and others have worked hard to secure an important reform for UK research.
Research is done by people in teams spanning professors to post-docs and technicians, with each making essential contributions to the work. The widening of Tier 1 could make a real difference to the sector.