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Britain’s Got Talent? What the new Global Talent visa means for universities and researchers


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Monday’s announcement of a new ‘Global Talent’ visa, a rebranded and expanded version of Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent), will come as particularly welcome news for universities and the research sector. But the detail may leave some people scratching their heads. 

The specifics have now landed via today’s statement of changes to the Immigration Rules. At first glance, the changes seem to introduce a new level of impenetrability, with certain terms (e.g. “directly incurred costs”) that will be little understood outside universities and research institutes. So what does it all mean?

What this introduces is a new immigration route within what was Exceptional Talent and is now called Global Talent. This new route will be intrinsically linked to the recruitment regimes of the higher education/research sector and provide an unlimited right to work for up to five years.

What kind of research jobs does this affect?

For clarity, the existing ways of getting a Global Talent (formerly Exceptional Talent) endorsement will remain in place. Those are:

  • The “standard” route where an academic/scientist/researcher can ask for peer review of their career under the categories of “promise” or “talent”
  • The “accelerated” route for those in receipt of a job offer for a senior role at a UK university or research institution
  • A further accelerated route where the person holds a prestigious grant/fellowship (with the list of eligible fellowships to be expanded)

Today’s changes introduce a fourth route covering two types of employees at UK universities and research institutions.

The first is post-doctoral researchers: those at an early stage of their academic career, having just gained their PhD. The second is specialist technologist roles.

This latter group is the most significant, and is a group which the sector has previously identified as being particularly vulnerable to being shut out under a post-Brexit immigration system.

What if you're not a scientist?

The explanatory memo accompanying today’s statement of changes says that “whilst specific provisions are made for the science and research sector, the Global Talent category is also open to talented and promising applicants within the digital technology and arts and culture (including film and television, fashion design and architecture) sectors”. More on this in a separate post.

Why include technical specialists?

Research sector organisations have consistently argued that salary is not an adequate indication of skill level for jobs in this sector. This is especially true of technical experts within research teams. 

Technical experts form a critical part of any research team. They make crucial intellectual contributions to research by providing technical excellence and through maintaining and developing new technologies. The concept here is “Team Science” – that is, it takes the whole team working together, with individuals holding different specialisms and knowledge, to deliver a research project.

Whilst not all such roles require non-UK nationals to fill them, where a skills gap exists it is vital that this is met through an adequate immigration system. Failure to do so would make the delivery of much of the research in the UK impossible. 

Under the current Tier 2 work visa system, specialist technician roles would be ineligible for sponsorship due to skill level requirements (RQF level 6 and above). Under the immigration white paper published by Theresa’s May government, skill level requirements would be lowered, bringing such roles within the scope of Tier 2 — but they would likely fail to meet the recommended £30,000 minimum salary. This could result in a critical skills gap. 

Bringing these specialist roles under the umbrella of the Global Talent route shelters them from the unknown quantities of a future immigration system.

That said, it is important to note that not all technician/technical roles will be able to access this route. Rather, it is for those with specialist technical expertise and skills which cannot be readily found within the settled workforce.

How will it be easier to recruit for such roles?

The new route works by making eligibility for a Global Talent visa automatic when a researcher or specialist is recruited using certain UK research funding grants. The key concept, as written into the Immigration Rules, is that the hire is part of the “directly incurred costs” of the project.

In the wonderful world of research-speak, this is defined as costs which form an integral part of a grant funding application associated with a UK research project. One such “directly incurred cost” is the payroll costs of the staff necessary to deliver a research project. These staff are recruited by the employer which has the grant funding. 

A researcher and/or specialist who is offered a job at a UK university or research institution, and whose job title or name was included within an application for qualifying research funding as a directly incurred cost, will be automatically eligible for a Global Talent visa. 

This new category will provide the research sector considerable freedom to recruit the researchers and specialists it needs via the medium of research grant funding, without day-to-day Home Office scrutiny. This is hugely significant, given the context of the current immigration system, but it should not be interpreted as a route which will allow unregulated migration. Far from it. 

Which research grants qualify?

There are several notable restrictions on who can access this new route, and how: 

  • The person must be named or appointed to a role on a successful grant application from a recognised funder
  • The person must be employed, hosted or in receipt of a job offer from a UK university, independent research organisation or public sector research establishment
  • The research grant must have been awarded under the “peer review” principle
  • The minimum value of the grant must be £30,000 and must support a project of at least two years in duration
  • The person must have, or be given, a contract of at least two years in duration at the point of application for endorsement, and work at least 50% FTE

The list of recognised funders will be administered by UK Research and Innovation, which oversees a large proportion of the UK’s science and research funding.

This system reflects the direction of travel over the last few years of devolving the decision-making process for certain visa types away from immigration caseworkers and on to expert third parties bodies (as seen recently with the Innovator and Start-up visas). 

The concept has now been taken one step further, weaving eligibility for a visa into the sector’s unique method of recruitment and funding. It will be impossible for those working outside the sector to access this endorsement route, and it should shift a lot of recruitment currently undertaken by universities and research institutions out of Tier 2 and into Appendix W.

Those granted entry under this new route will be granted a visa of up to five years with the ability to gain settlement after three years. They will not be tied to their host institution, meaning no restrictions on their ability to move between roles and employers, provided the above rules were met at the outset. The route will also have no arbitrary cap on numbers. Final details on the application process will be released shortly.

In my view, this new route is a fragile gift to the sector — one which will need to be embraced proactively to ensure it is utilised to the full.

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Graeme Ross

Graeme Ross is Immigration and Compliance Manager at the University of Cambridge. He provides legal advice and practical solutions on complex immigration matters, ensuring the successful recruitment and retention of world-leading academics, researchers and scientists. He has over sixteen years experience working in immigration law.