In July, the government released its ‘UK Innovation Strategy’, setting out the plans to make the UK a world-leader in technology, innovation and research by 2035.

Crucially, the plan to situate tech, innovation and research at the centre of the UK’s economy will require a substantial bedrock of highly skilled workers to support it. But with tens of thousands of workers leaving the UK following Brexit, a talent gap is emerging.

Faced with this exodus, the government has unveiled plans for a new ‘high potential’ visa with the aim of providing an easy immigration route to the UK for first-class talent within innovation, technology and R&D. So how does this visa differ from its predecessors, and what do employees need to be aware of?

A simplified route for overseas talent

As well as developing home-grown talent, the government wants to make the UK attractive to the world’s best graduates, recognising that skilled migration is strongly associated with higher levels of innovation.

Named the ‘High Potential Individual’ route, the visa will aim to make it as simple as possible for skilled talent to enter the UK. The move builds on previous promises to provide an unsponsored work route under the points-based immigration system for business visas.

An important feature is that applicants won’t need to have secured a job offer in order to apply, and will not rely on employer sponsorship – which will significantly widen the net to capture prospective talent, as well as those with established in-roads into their respective industry. The visa will also not tie individuals to a specific employer, which means that successful applicants will have the flexibility to move between roles or develop entrepreneurial ideas for their own businesses. Unlike the new Graduate route, individuals on this visa will be able to extend their visa and settle in the UK, making it an attractive option for those looking to relocate here.

For those who have been involved in immigration for some time, this announcement is reminiscent of the previous ‘Tier 1 General’ route or, going back even further, the ‘Highly Skilled Migrant Programme’. Both routes were ultimately abandoned after the government concluded they had failed to meet their objectives, when it was found too many successful applicants were not working in highly skilled roles.

Questions to be answered

The government has outlined that the visa will be open to applicants who ‘have graduated from a top global university’. It has also announced it will ‘explore the scope to expand eligibility to other characteristics of high potential’. But, as of yet, there’s no indication as to which universities will qualify. It’s also not clear whether the government will draw up an accepted list of institutions, or if it will be more flexible and assess universities on a case-by-case basis.

Other unanswered questions include whether the eligibility criteria will expand to allow for other skills in addition to simply attending a ‘top’ university. This is a particularly important issue, given many budding entrepreneurs – particularly Gen Z – are increasingly choosing to eschew higher education in favour of an earlier step onto the career ladder. Or, perhaps more importantly, the potential that this stipulation would bar talented individuals from more challenging socio-economic backgrounds, who have limited opportunities to attend a ‘top global university’, from applying.

It’s also not yet clear whether specific degree courses will be deemed as acceptable or turned down. It seems unlikely that the only significant criteria for the visa will be attending a university, with the degree studied and grade achieved not coming into the picture.

The current announcement also needs to be considered in light of the Home Office’s statement last year confirming that only ‘a smaller number of the most highly skilled workers’ would be eligible for visas of this sort. With this in mind, it seems inevitable that further criteria will be introduced, and, potentially, a cap on the number of applicants added.

‘Scale-Up’, ‘Innovator’ and ‘Global Business Mobility’ visas

In addition to the ‘High Potential Individual’ route, the government has also trailed further changes to entrepreneurial and international work visas.

With the aim of supporting existing scale-ups in the UK, the newly introduced ‘Scale-Up’ route will allow businesses to recruit people outside of UK talent pools. Talented individuals who hold a job offer for a high-skilled role at a scale-up will be able to come to the UK, as long as they meet a minimum salary requirement, which is yet to be confirmed. However, this visa could prove difficult to obtain in practice, given scale-ups will need to “demonstrate an annual average revenue or employment growth rate over a three-year period greater than 20%, and have a minimum of 10 employees at the start of the three-year period.”

Another pipeline set to boost growth and create jobs is the proposed revamping of the ‘Innovator’ route, which will allow entrepreneurs from overseas to found and operate a business in the UK that is venture-backed, or harnesses innovative technologies. Importantly, applicants will no longer be required to have at least £50,000 in investment funds, and when it comes to the more bespoke individual criteria, applicants will only need to show that their business “has a high potential to grow and add value to the UK and is innovative.”

Added to these, the long-anticipated ‘Global Business Mobility’ visa will allow overseas businesses greater flexibility in transferring workers to the UK, in order to establish and expand their businesses. This appears to be a rebranding of the current ‘Sole Representative for Overseas Business’ visa, although it will be interesting to see what overlap there is with the current ‘Intra Company Transfer’ sponsorship route when more details are announced.

These new strategies aim to make the UK a global hub for innovation and increase business investment, but we will need to understand the finer details before making any judgments as to whether or not they are likely to succeed in their stated aims. Businesses struggling with the current candidate shortage will undoubtedly await further announcements with interest.