Why the High-Potential Individual visa route won’t attract the brightest and best to the UK

Limiting those granted the permit to three years’ residency creates more barriers for talented migrants, rather than breaking them down, argues Yash Dubal

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At the end of May, with great fanfare, the first applications for Britain's newest work permit route came flooding in. Or so the government hoped.

The High Potential Individual (HPI) visa is a much-hyped plank of the UK’s post-Brexit points-based immigration system and is aimed at attracting ‘the brightest and best’ individuals from around the world. It targets international elite performers as part of Britain’s ‘Build Back Better for Growth’ strategy, ensuring the UK becomes a “leading international hub for emerging and disruptive technologies”.

HPI visas are open to individuals who have gained a degree or above level academic qualification in the past five years from an institution on the government’s ‘Global Universities’ list. This list consists of overseas universities that have been ranked in the top 50 on at least two of three global ranking systems: the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings and The Academic Ranking of World Universities. In addition, applicants need to demonstrate they can speak English to an acceptable level and must have sufficient funds to support themselves while in the UK.

In return they get the freedom to work, study or set up as a self-employed entity in the UK for up to three years, depending on their level of qualification. They can bring dependent partners and children under the age of 18. When the visa expires, applicants will either be expected to leave the country or switch to another visa route.

So, will this new addition to Britain’s immigration toolkit entice the world’s smartest IT engineers, digital whizz-kids and research scientists? Do we expect to see a brain drain away for other nations towards the UK?

Unfortunately, I doubt it. The route is doomed to failure because while there are some positives, there are some fundamental negatives. One of the biggest problems is the settlement issue. A temporary stay in the UK without the prospect of permanent residency will not be attractive for a highflyer looking to build a new life in another part of the world. Migration is not easy. It is also costly. Migrants uproot themselves from their homes and their communities. Migration isn’t something people choose to do frequently. It is usually a one-way trip.

In restricting the HPI visa to a limited number of years, the government has failed to understand the migrant mindset. The messaging is all wrong. On the one hand, the government is saying ‘we want you’ but on the other it is saying ‘but not for long’. Conversely, in the US a group of nearly 50 former Homeland Security and Defence officials has asked Congress to exempt immigrants with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees from visa restrictions, arguing that doing so would allow the US to maintain an edge over China.

If the UK is serious about throwing down the welcome mat for the brightest and best, it should show some commitment, particularly when there is a global shortage of talent. After all, the UK is competing with others such as the US, which proposes abolishing barriers for entry, rather than erecting them.

There are other reasons why the HPI may not be the silver bullet for skilling up the UK that the government hopes it will be. There is a western bias to the list of approved education establishments that HPI applicants must have gained their qualifications from. Of the 37 universities that appear on this list, 24 are based in the US, Canada or Australia, with many of the rest being based in Europe. The huge pool of highly-skilled and well qualified potential migrants in India, Africa, South America and the Middle East who haven’t been able to study at the likes of Stanford, Harvard or Princeton will be overlooked as a result. Is it realistic to think that Ivy League grads who will have the pick of the well-paid jobs in their own country will be lured to the UK? What have we got to offer that New York or Silicon Valley haven’t? And the fact that the qualifications need to have been awarded in the past five years also limits applicants and discounts others who will have gained important industry experience.

For these reasons, I predict that while there will be a trickle of applications, the opportunity to really attract the brightest and best will be missed, and the UK will lose out to other countries willing to embrace migrants. 

Yash Dubal is managing director of A Y & J Solicitors