Should the UK adopt a points-based immigration system?

Olivia Coles explains what moving to an Australian-style scheme would mean for businesses hoping to bring talent into the country, and how this would differ from current arrangements

With Brexit looming, everyone is grappling to find solutions to the many unanswered questions about what the immigration system will look like. Home secretary Priti Patel and others within government have suggested the answer may be found in the Australian points-based system (PBS). Considering the Australian PBS was used to increase migration to Australia, it’s surprising that the government is suggesting a similar system in the UK when it has the opposite objective. 

What is the Australian PBS? 

To apply for a visa under the Australian PBS, applicants are awarded points for certain characteristics, such as their age, English language proficiency, skilled work experience and qualifications. Applicants must obtain a certain number of points and the highest scorers are invited to apply for a visa first. 

The key aspect of the Australian PBS is the flexibility in how applicants meet the required points total. Applicants who do not score points for one characteristic can make up the points from one of the other categories. For example, applicants with lower educational qualifications can make up their points with a higher level of English language proficiency or a longer period of skilled work experience. 

What is the current UK system? 

The UK already has a points-based system. However, this is in name only – there is no flexibility with how an applicant gets the required points. In reality, an applicant must meet all the criteria to be issued with a visa.

What about a job offer? 

A crucial difference between the Australian and UK systems is the requirement of a job offer. The Australian PBS does not apply to applicants with a job offer, but a job offer is essential under the UK system. The government has been clear that applicants would still require a job offer under any new PBS, meaning that it’s not really an Australian-style PBS they are considering. 

It’s possible to have a PBS that requires a job offer or offers points for a job offer, and such systems are in place in other countries including Austria and New Zealand. The government’s suggestion for the UK seems to be more in line with one of these systems.

Would an Australian PBS work in the UK? 

In Australia, the system is ‘government driven’ as the government controls the criteria for visa applications. The current UK system is ‘demand driven’, with employers driving the flow of migrants into the UK. The downside of a government-driven system is that the attributes chosen by the government may not reflect the requirements of employers. It’s essentially a tick-box exercise for applicants, who would then be able to come to the UK with no guarantee that there will be an available job suited to their skills.

The UK used to operate an Australian-style PBS under one of its immigration routes. It allowed applicants without a job offer to apply for a visa, after being assessed on merit-based criteria. This was known as the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme and then the Tier 1 (General) route. However, this was closed in 2011 as there was concern that too many of these migrants failed to obtain employment, or only obtained low-skilled work. Care would need to be taken to avoid these pitfalls. 

The success of a true PBS in the UK will depend on how it is designed, including what criteria is used and whether a job offer is required. The government is expected to release its plan for the new system in 2020 once the Migration Advisory Committee has reported on its review of the Australian PBS. 

Olivia Coles is an associate in the employment team at Royds Withy King