Is the Global Talent Visa really helping the UK tech skills crisis?

A close up of a UK visa in a passport
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

It’s been 18 months since the UK government introduced the Global Talent Visa (GTV), with the aim to attract the world’s brightest minds to fuel the country’s digital technology sector.

Designed for anyone who might be “a leader or potential leader” in three distinct areas – tech, academia and research, and culture and the arts – this immigration pathway replaced the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa in February 2020.

According to figures released at the end of August by Tech Nation, designated by the Home Office to endorse applications for this route, around 1,400 applications for the GTV were received in the previous 12 months.

The organisation also states it has endorsed more than 600 applications since 2018, which includes those under the visa’s previous guise.

But as the UK tech industry reportedly faces vacancies of up to 100,000 per month, amid a growing digital skills shortage some argue that the Global Talent Visa’s focus on exceptional individuals is too narrow.

Others, like founder of Tech London Advocates Russ Shaw, suggest some additional steps could be taken to improve the process. “The Global Talent Visa has been a welcome step to attract foreign tech talent and send a message that talented entrepreneurs from around the world are welcome in the UK; however, more needs to be done to remove barriers to accessing skills across industry,” Shaw says.

He adds: “In addition to now being capless, the process for Global Talent Visas has been made simpler with candidates now able to apply themselves without needing a sponsor, and to flexibly change roles after entering the UK without needing to inform the Home Office.

“However, fulfilling criteria for a Global Talent Visa can still seem daunting for those lacking confidence in English, administrative costs for visa applications are very high, and the process can be lengthy.”

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Open to over 18s, the GTV has been designed to benefit fields like fintech, gaming, cyber security and artificial intelligence (AI) with the visa lasting up to five years. Those with a wide range of skills face no language or minimum salary eligibility requirements and do not need a job offer to apply, but must instead gain an endorsement via Tech Nation.

However, Jonathan Beech, managing director of immigration law firm Migrate UK believes the scheme “has never really reached its potential”, explaining: “The main challenges are that those relying on technical or business experience within service/process delivery, outsourcing, consultancy, ERP consultancy, systems admin and larger organisations primarily serving larger corporate customers are generally excluded. The process is also still document heavy.”

The talent shortage in tech and digital is not new. Experts point to a wide combination of factors, including increasingly tough immigration rules and not enough young people coming through the UK education system with the right STEM subject qualifications.

Another way the government has moved to mitigate this is through the Skilled Worker category of visa where some tech roles, such as programmers and systems designers, are now classed as being in short supply meaning they attract fewer entry rules.

The Global Talent Visa does have plenty of support, including from Shawn Tan, CEO of AI ecosystem builder and investment firm Skymind, who says: “The visa scheme seems to benefit the kind of talent we are looking for – highly qualified and globally-minded digital workers that are hungry to make their mark in the world of AI and fintech.

“Government also appears to be willing to listen to businesses to understand what they want and how to make the application process better and a lot smoother for top talent to come in.”

But Talitha Degwa, an immigration and global mobility associate partner at international law firm Spencer West, suggests most applicants fail at the first stage of the GTV, the endorsement requirement, because while they have the relevant experience, they may not have all the right documented evidence to demonstrate their work.

Degwa, though, is hopeful of further change to the programme and other visa schemes, for example, in March 2021, holders of international prizes and winners of scholarships and programmes for early promise were allowed to automatically qualify for the GTV and bypass the endorsement requirement.

She adds: “The government intends to introduce the elite points-based visa, which would not require applicants to be sponsored, next year. I hope that this visa will be suitable for individuals who fall short of meeting the global talent criteria, allowing the tech sector to attract even more talent to the UK.”

Supporting UK tech in key areas of growth

Tech Nation does point to a number of key areas where the Global Talent Visa has played a role in boosting expertise, including app and software development, AI and machine learning, and enterprise software.

It says demand for the route increased by 28% between April 2019 and March 2020 (pre-pandemic) and April 2020 to March 2021. Across both life cycles of the visa’s name, the number of endorsed applications from founders has grown by 73% on average every year since 2018, the organisation says, with four in 10 (39%) of all endorsed applicants basing themselves outside London.

Visa Programme Manager Oli Monks adds: “The Global Talent Visa is open to highly-skilled tech employees and tech founders from across the world. The application process is competitive, and endorsements are carefully reviewed by independent judges to ensure that they are accepting the best and brightest talent from across the world who have the potential to drive the UK digital economy.”

He adds: “As tech continues to be a strong economic performer, delivering significant value to the nation through investments, jobs and innovation, certain tech skills will remain in great demand, and the visa plays a crucial role in filling those vacancies.”

Looking to the future, however, Edgardo Savoy, CTO at fintech start-up TransferGo, advocates a need to look more broadly. He explains: “The UK workforce is currently being encouraged to reskill and retrain in tech to prepare for the future of work, and yet migrants with similar aspirations and capabilities may be excluded from doing the same if blocked entry under the criteria of the Global Talent Visa.

“If the UK wants to continue to be Europe’s number one tech or fintech hub, we must find a way to look beyond a current skill set or occupation and accommodate those with a passion or willingness to work hard and drive real positive change in the industry.”

Jonathan Weinberg is a freelance journalist and writer who specialises in technology and business, with a particular interest in the social and economic impact on the future of work and wider society. His passion is for telling stories that show how technology and digital improves our lives for the better, while keeping one eye on the emerging security and privacy dangers. A former national newspaper technology, gadgets and gaming editor for a decade, Jonathan has been bylined in national, consumer and trade publications across print and online, in the UK and the US.