Yesterday, with great fanfare, Britain’s newest work permit route was opened up, while the government prayed for a flood of applications.
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”.
But it is doomed to failure before it begins. Indeed I predict such small numbers of people will apply, it will be quietly forgotten within a year.
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. 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, why is this new addition to Britain’s immigration toolkit unlikely to entice the world’s smartest IT engineers, digital whizz-kids and research scientists? Why won’t it spark a brain drain away for other nations towards the UK?
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 life in another part of the world. By limiting the time visa holders can stay in the UK, the government has shown an inability to understand the mindset of a migrant and a lack of awareness of the migrant experience. 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. Migrants want security, not uncertainty.
On the one hand the government is saying “we want you” but on the other it is saying “just 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 STEM degrees from visa restrictions arguing that doing so would allow the U.S. 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. We are competing with others such as the US who propose abolishing barriers for entry, rather than erecting them. And these high performers know their worth in the global market.
There is an inherent western elitism built into its selection criteria. Of the 37 universities that appear on this list of approved establishments from which applicants must have graduated, 24 are based in the US, Canada or Australia. Many of the rest are 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. 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 hasn’t? And even if a non-native of the USA, Canada or Australia attended one of the Universities on the list, it is likely they will stay in the country in which they studied.
We are missing the opportunity to truly attract the brightest and best. The UK will lose out to other countries willing to embrace high potential migrants from a truly global pool of talent.