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Why the latest visa reforms are a step in the right direction

Wellcome's Martin Smith explains what recent changes to the Tier 1 immigration route mean for the sector.
This article is more than 1 year old

Martin is a Policy and Advocacy Manager in the UK & EU team at Wellcome, currently focusing on Brexit and immigration policy.

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.

Endorsed funders

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.

Global talent

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.

2 responses to “Why the latest visa reforms are a step in the right direction

  1. This could be a positive step. There are a number of issues still to work through. Here’s a few I immediately thought of

    1. Cost: You mention this, but adding £625pa IHS to the £608 initial fee means that everyone coming through this route must stump up £2483 per person for a 3yr visa. This is >15% of the annual take-home pay of a postdoc on the typical starting point of the single pay spine. If they have a partner and two children, the contract-dependent visa application cost would be 60% of their first year’s pay. This is simply unaffordable, and added to this presents a significant risk, since if the visa is not awarded for any reason, they will be let without a job and significantly out of pocket.

    2. Recruitment: Universities recruiting continuing posts–say lectureships–will have a rationale for that post that typically includes both research and teaching. Whilst eligibility for the reformulated Tier 1 (Global Talent) is considerably wider than the previous Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent), having a >£30K grant with a duration of >2 years is still a very high bar at this career stage, as well as extremely discipline-specific. Many excellent candidates will therefore still need to apply through the more onerous and expensive Tier 2.

    3. Grant rules: Apart from some fellowships and ECR-focussed funding, many funders (esp. UKRI) require the applicant to already have a continuing position at a British University. While the new Tier 1 category seems intended to allow recruitment of postdocs from abroad to support projects won be UK-based PIs, it is not clear to be whether they need to be named on the bid or just recruited to the funded grant, whether the post needs to be >2yrs or more, or how fractional appointments would be treated.

    4. Incentives to promote take-up: Paradoxically, employers have an incentive to discourage applicants from making use of Tier 1 precisely because of its flexibility. As long as Tier 2 remains employer-sponsored, they have an incentive to keep migrant staff members on the visa category which ties their visa to their employment.

    5. Switching rules: there is no detail on whether the route can be switched to from other immigration rules, or what effects that would have. E.g. if a Tier 2 migrant switches to Tier 1 (global talent), does that change their eligibility for ILR?

  2. Thanks Gareth.

    There’s definitely some more detail to be announced here, but the information on the UKRI website covers a couple of those points:

    On (3), the person has to be either named on the grant or appointed to a role named on the grant, and spend at least 50% of their working time contributing to that grant. They also need at least two years left on their employment contract. So it won’t work for everyone, but it should capture a lot more than the existing T1 routes.

    On (5), UKRI says that switching is possible, but details of impact on ILR etc is TBC.

    Current details are here:

    Plenty more to do, but a step in the right direction – and a statement of intent – I think.

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