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May 31, 2022updated 23 Jun 2022 10:09am

High Potential Individual visa scheme could boost UK tech talent. But is it fair?

By Afiq Fitri

STEM graduates from an elite group of global universities will be able to apply for a new High Potential Individual visa to the UK, in a new scheme unveiled by the government this week. While the scheme is likely to be a boon to employers seeking world-class technology talent, some have questioned whether an applicant’s university is a fair way to identify their potential.

short-term visa to work in the UK
A new scheme offers STEM graduates from elite global universities a short-term visa to work in the UK. (Photo: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The new High Potential Individual visa scheme will be available to candidates who have graduated in a STEM topic from one of 50 elite universities in the last five years. Qualifying universities are mostly US-based, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford. Also on the list are China’s Tsinghua University, the University of Tokyo, and ETH Zurich.

Successful applicants with a bachelor’s or master’s degree will receive a two-year visa under the scheme, while PhD holders will receive a three-year visa.

“From engineering to cyber security to advanced medical research, the UK will be able to welcome talented individuals to drive both economic growth as well as technological and medical advances,” a statement from the Home Office and the Treasury read.

The new visa route will allow the UK to “grow as a leading international hub for innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship”, said chancellor Rishi Sunak. Home secretary Priti Patel said she was “proud to be launching this new and exciting route as part of our points-based immigration system, which puts ability and talent first – not where someone comes from”.

Jonathan Beech, managing director at the immigration law firm Migrate UK, says that technology companies based in the UK have already been using a similar scheme that offers short-term visas to STEM graduates from UK universities.

“Tech companies that are looking to hire interns to train them up to be part of the company’s structure leverage the HPI visa scheme to try them out before making a long-term commitment to employ these talented graduates,” Beech told Tech Monitor. That scheme “is quickly gaining traction as a great source of talent to the sector, and I think the High Potential Individual visa scheme will do the same”.

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“While the High Potential Individual visa is not necessarily solely targeting the tech sector, I can see how the industry is going to benefit widely from this,” he added.

Is the High Potential Individual visa scheme fair?

Some have questioned the wisdom of limiting the High Potential Individual visa scheme to a select group of 50 universities, however. Writing for the New Statesman today, human rights lawyer Jacqueline McKenzie argued that the scheme discriminates against candidates from the global South, and pointed to doubts about the validity of ranking universities.

Nimmi Patel, policy manager for skills, talent and diversity at IT industry trade body techUK, shares this concern. “If we’re trying to build an equitable tech sector, we really have to showcase that the policies the UK presents to the world are equitable in itself and that’s currently not the case,” she told Tech Monitor.

“Currently, we’re excluding vast chunks of the world by applying these rules and I do hope that people who aren’t from universities on the list are still keen to work in the UK’s tech sector because it may be the case that we’re alienating some people,” Patel added.

Josh Winfield, global talent visa lead at Tech Nation, which administers tech-related visas, said the list of eligible universities were decided through an “independent verification of institutions”.

“What’s important to note is that this list is dynamic and as university rankings change, so does the list,” he added. “Africa, Latin America and South Asia have a huge number of institutions that are developing rapidly and will absolutely feature on the list for years to come.” 

Another route into the UK for technology talent is the Global Talent Visa, which is available to foreign nationals with demonstrated experience or potential as a ‘leader’ in digital technology. As of 2021, Tech Nation had received over 4,200 applications for the Global Talent Visa, from candidates from over 90 countries. A third of the applicants were from India, more than any other country, with the US in second place at 13%.

Read more: IT recruitment in the post-pandemic era: How to compete for top talent

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