The United Kingdom is experiencing a digital skills shortage, and as the economy is becoming more digital, competitiveness for tech expertise will only intensify. While corporations and governments are working tirelessly to develop a domestic pipeline of future tech talent, and much is already being done in lifelong learning, the tech sector has an immediate need for skilled workers. Migration, both from inside the EU and from outside the EU, is critical to the UK's long-term development.
Among the recommendations made by the UK government are the removal of arbitrary Tier 2 skilled worker caps; a review of Tier 1 UK visas or the Global Talent Visa, including both Exceptional Talent and Post-Study work visas; the elimination of salary as a substitute for skill level; and relaxation of consistent residency requirements for those travelling for business or research. There is also an evident need to streamline processes; therefore, the government has proposed modifications to supporting documentation requirements, simplifying fee structure, and reviewing the currently underutilised Tier 5 visa system.
UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak revealed the government's latest measures to guarantee that Brexit would not halt the country's much-needed influx of tech talent in his March 2021 Budget announcement. It's unclear how successful these measures will be because the pandemic has made it more difficult to assess how the UK's exit from the EU has impacted highly qualified UK immigrants. However, tinkering with UK visa rules would not be enough if the UK is to fulfil its objectives for global technological leadership.
The UK government plays a critical role in facilitating collaboration between industry and researchers, assisting large and small enterprises in collaborating and developing shared goals and strategies across sectors to capitalise on the UK's technological advantages. However, the desire for technical innovation is not reflected in average Research and Development investment. According to findings published by the National Science Board in 2020, the UK's average increase in domestic R&D was 4 per cent between 2000 and 2017. In India, the figure was 8 per cent, and it was 17 per cent in China.
Recent events and technological advances have highlighted the importance of migrants, and hence the importance of a UK immigration policy that allows skilled workers to migrate freely. Migrants have been at the vanguard of technological advancements, from Covid vaccinations to AI breakthroughs. This is especially true in high-income countries, where the prospect of a better life for themselves and their families can entice employees with the necessary skills from lower-income families. Foreign-born workers account for 24% of the information, communication, and information technology workforce. This trend is expected to continue under the new points-based UK immigration system, which awards additional points to candidates with advanced degrees, such as a PhD in a STEM field. Several new UK visa channels have opened as part of the system, aimed at tech workers. The 'Global Talent Visa' is open to extraordinary talents in various fields, including the digital sector.
Any future investment-related migration will now be subject to the new Innovator visa route terms. Those with skills and expertise relevant to an investment in the creative business ecosystem" are eligible for this new UK visa. Certified endorsing authorities will independently evaluate applicants. As a result, the trend remains to target and recruit talent in the technology sector. In the form of the Global Talent Visa, the Global Talent Network intends to source science and tech talent from universities, innovation centres, and research institutes throughout the world is another step that will draw Indian and worldwide tech talents to the UK.
The new points-based UK immigration system will confer points to applicants based on skills, qualifications, incomes, occupations, and the ability to communicate in English. It will apply to both EU and non-EU citizens seeking employment in the United Kingdom. In a policy statement explaining the new UK immigration system, the government stated that it was designed to give precedence to talented, skilled persons such as " scientists, engineers, academics, and other highly skilled workers" who intended to come to the UK. The current Global Talent Visa route for highly skilled workers, which was previously known as the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent route, was expanded in January 2021 to include EU citizens as well as those from outside the European Economic Areas (EEA), allowing exceptionally talented people to enter the UK without a job offer if they meet the requirements for a UK visa and are endorsed by a relevant competent body. This type of application's rules was recently changed to make it easier for those with STEM backgrounds to apply.
The modifications to the Global Talent Visa route will assist the UK's digital sector to continue to attract digital expertise from across the world, according to Tech Nation, the entity responsible for endorsing and processing applications through this route for the digital technology sector. Tech Nation said that demand for tech employment has increased in recent years, citing a 44 per cent increase in Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa applications in 2019. It has supported more than 1,200 applications since its inception in 2014. The former immigration system required applicants to have a degree-level qualification to work in the UK; currently, applicants need to be qualified up to A-level or equivalent. The objective is to provide a greater pool of skilled workers to the UK labour market.
The government of the United Kingdom has stated its desire to become a "science and technology superpower". However, the scarcity of technological capabilities jeopardises this goal. According to a CBI report from 2019, two-thirds of digital skills jobs in the UK go unfilled, and only a third of businesses believe they will be able to obtain the digital skills they require in the next two to five years. According to the same report, software development and data analytics were considered the most complex technical talents for UK businesses to obtain.
TechUK highlighted some of the costs of applying for a non-EEA visa, claiming that many smaller businesses could not afford international talent or found UK visa application processes to be complicated. The new rules, according to Dom Hallas, executive director of the Coadec, will "restrict the ability of start-ups to hire talent from outside the UK", and while removing the resident labour market test and lowering the cap on skilled labour are "steps in the right direction" he believes there is still a "long way to go".
The two countries' tech relationship officially began in 2018, two years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU. The UK and India signed the UK-India Tech Partnership at that year's Commonwealth Summit, aiming to foster links between SMEs, venture capital firms, universities, and other investors in both nations. According to estimates, thousands more tech jobs are expected to be created in the UK due to the cooperation.
Over 40 per cent of Indian companies operating in the UK are technology enterprises, with tech-related business worth $25 billion between the two countries in 2021. This value has increased due to pandemic-driven digital transformation. Several of India's major technology firms, including Tata Consultancy Services, HCL Technologies, and Infosys, have extended their London operations.
There were concerns that Brexit would exacerbate the skills gap by barring EU tech talent from coming to the UK. In the post-Brexit UK immigration regime, the government took steps to address these concerns. A new points-based UK immigration system that went into effect in January rewards applicants with STEM degrees and skills in high demand. The former Tier 1 (Exceptional) and Tier 2 (General) employment visas were modified, and a limit on how many could be authorised was removed.
UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced additional initiatives in March 2021 to make it easy for technical professionals to settle in the UK. A new 'elite' points-based UK visa, meant to attract financial technology professionals in particular, and a fast-track scheme for workers joining 'scale-up' enterprises, is one of these. Reduced limits on the existing UK Global Talent Visa and UK Innovator Visa programmes are among the other measures.
Antony Walker, the deputy CEO of industry body Tech UK, believes the government could do more to assist businesses, particularly SMEs, to reskill and upskill. These could include tax incentives for small firms to aid in their investment in skills training and establishing a training ecosystem to support it.