Mixed response from business as government removes visa restrictions for PhDs

15 Mar 2019 By Emily Burt

Experts say news is ‘welcome’ but will not detract from broader Brexit skills pressures 

The decision to exempt PhD-level roles from the UK’s Tier 2 visa cap has been cautiously welcomed by experts, with many warning of persistent talent shortages in the wake of ongoing Brexit uncertainty. 

As part of a package of reforms announced in the Spring Statement earlier this week, chancellor Philip Hammond said non-EEA nationals applying for roles where a PHD was required would be exempted from the UK’s visa cap from this autumn.

The move is the latest step by the government to mitigate the effects of Brexit on skills availability, following exemptions granted to certain medical roles and some secondary school teachers in March. The new rules will apply regardless of any Brexit deal – or a no-deal exit from the EU – until a broader visa regime is introduced to cover all migration to the UK, after any Brexit transition period ends. 

But the new proposals received a mixed response from business leaders. Edwin Morgan, director of policy at the Institute of Directors, said the move represented “a small step forward in unleashing research and development activity at a time when wide skills gaps are emerging across the country,” but added the Spring Statement would “barely register with most business leaders” in the face of ongoing and persistent Brexit uncertainty.

REC policy adviser Chris Russell told People Management the news was welcome, particularly for recruiters working in sectors such as life sciences, but also pointed to broader issues faced by those building a talent strategy. 

“There are currently skills shortages across the UK economy, with staff availability declining month on month since 2013,” he said. 

“To respond to this, the UK needs an evidence-based immigration system which meets the needs of the economy and adapts to an evolving jobs market.”

Jonathan Beech, managing director of immigration law firm Migrate UK, said that on a practical level the proposals would make it easier for employers to fill roles quickly and easily, indicating the UK was committed to remaining a ‘hotbed’ of research talent. 

“Businesses will be able to work lot quicker to obtain the talent they actually need,” he said. 

“Under the monthly quota, with the time it takes to process vacancies, there’s a risk  candidates can get bored of waiting and find opportunities elsewhere – so under these changes, employers can work swiftly to secure the talent they need with less wastage.” 

In the short term, the move is likely to be largely academic, as the visa cap has not been breached since August 2018, following Sajid Javid’s decision to exempt doctors and nurses from the rules last summer

But the Spring Statement additionally proposed that PhD-level employees taking research trips would be exempted from the “180-day absence rule” – which prevents foreign nationals staying in the UK under indefinite leave to remain measures from being outside the country for more than 180 days in a rolling 12-month period. 

“Overseas research activity will [...] count as residence in the UK for the purpose of applying for settlement,” the statement proposed, ensuring “researchers will no longer be unfairly penalised for time spent overseas conducting vital fieldwork.” 

However, Beech warned the measures would not noticeably mitigate the pressures faced by businesses as a result of ongoing Brexit uncertainty, with Migrate UK anticipating increased calls from businesses in search of sponsor licenses once the post-Brexit transition period has been implemented. 

“There is genuine worry among EU employees about what they can do and how they can apply for their families,” he said. 

“HR departments are really struggling – they have the vacancies but then have to provide that reassurance that there will be a business, that there will be funding and they can still be here in six months.”

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