July 18, 2014 5:35 pm

Is Britain closing its doors to talent?

Five years ago, Lisa Pollack came to the UK as a ‘highly skilled migrant’. Today, her life-changing move would be a lot more difficult

“Visa curbs on highly skilled migrants hit UK talent pool” was the front page headline on the FT. Referring to a study carried out for the FT by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, the July 3 story showed that the flow of highly skilled migrants coming to the UK from outside Europe had decreased by more than a third between 2011 and 2013. And though Vince Cable, the business secretary, told the FT the findings were “deeply worrying”, they were hardly surprising given how much visa rules have been tightened over the past few years.

In the UK, “highly skilled migrant” is a term generally applied to non-natives who are university-educated, high-earning, in a “top” or professional occupation – or some combination thereof. It’s a group of people frequently overlooked in the current, impassioned debates about immigration, which tend to fixate on either new arrivals to the UK from eastern Europe or the plight of asylum seekers. But, as the negative effects of recent visa restrictions on the highly skilled begin to be more acutely felt, perhaps this should now change.

Behind the rule tightening is the government’s 2010 pledge to reduce net migration – the difference between the numbers coming to and leaving the UK – to 100,000 a year. According to the Office of National Statistics, the figure currently stands at 212,000. Since the influx of people from Europe can’t legally be stopped, the government has had to slow the flow of non-Europeans – “highly skilled” or otherwise. In this context, the toughening up is logical, but it does push against other stated goals, such as the UK being open to the best and the brightest. Adrian Berry, a barrister and chairman of trustees for the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, says this conflict “has led to chaotic policymaking, with the net migration target tending to prevail at the expense of a migration policy to encourage growth”.

For someone like me, an American who came to the UK under a scheme for the highly skilled, all this leads to an uncomfortable realisation: the timing was everything. With the changes to the visa system over the past few years, I doubt I would have been able to make the same move to the UK now that I did five years ago.

. . .

Lisa Pollack, with passport and Indefinite Leave to Remain identity card, outside Lunar House public inquiry office in Croydon, south London©Greg Funnell

Lisa Pollack, with passport and Indefinite Leave to Remain identity card, outside Lunar House public inquiry office in Croydon, south London

In early 2009, an online calculator, hosted on the website of the UK’s Border Agency, changed the course of my life. At the time, I was an analyst at a New York investment bank. For more than a year, I’d been watching the financial industry implode. To me, not long out of academia, the crisis seemed raw and interesting. The timing of my arrival on Wall Street meant it was hard to take the downturn personally. In my office, however, there was near constant chatter about redundancies. I gave in and began to do what many of my colleagues had already been openly doing for some time: formulate an escape plan.

Unlike many of my contemporaries, I did not have a network in the city to fall back on. While I am American and have family in the US, I’d been in the UK for the final years of my secondary education and had stayed on for my undergraduate degree. The move to New York had been something of a fluke. I had always felt more at home in England and still had close friends there. Things, I decided, would surely be better in Britain.

As an American, however, I need a visa to do anything other than be a rage-inducing tourist standing on the wrong side of a London Underground escalator. The “Tier 1 (General)” visa – meant for highly skilled migrants – looked like just the ticket, provided I could qualify.

Tier 1 is the top category of a system that has five tiers and an uncomfortable similarity to the social classification system in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It allows an immigrant to live in the UK for two to three years, seek employment during that time, and work for any company that will have him or her. This flexibility is the crucial distinction between Tier 1 and Tier 2, which is sponsored by companies and, thus, more subject to the whims of employers.

Qualifying for a Tier 1 (General) visa required a score of 75 points from the aforementioned online calculator, reminiscent of those used for home insurance policies. In place of questions about roof materials and the date of construction are drop-down menus inquiring about your age, education, savings, English language ability and so on. When I started punching in my details, my bachelor’s degree earned me 30 points out of a maximum of 50, which was awarded for a PhD.

Being just shy of 28 years old at the time, I was awarded the maximum of 20 points for age. Had I been 32 or older, no points would have been forthcoming. Prior experience of living in the UK also counted for something (five points), though my knowledge of EastEnders from 1998 to 2004 did not.

At this point, the calculator posed a deeply personal question: how much had I earned in the past 12 months? My inflated investment banking salary was not something I was proud of but I picked the appropriate bracket and moved on as quickly as possible. All in, the calculator declared a result well clear of the minimum requirement of 75 points.

As a result, in the first quarter of 2009 I was one of the 417 Americans who came to the UK on a Tier 1 (General) visa, alongside 2,241 people from India, 769 Australians, 732 Pakistanis, 484 South Africans, and 2,033 people of other nationalities.

. . .

My timing, it would turn out, couldn’t have been better. A few months after I qualified, the parameters of the calculation changed and a master's degree became the minimum educational requirement. This tightening made some sense in the context of the financial crisis, which was in full swing by then, but a year later the change was scrapped. At the same time, the points for age got more liberal (with everyone up to 39 getting something) but the earnings requirement became more demanding, with a salary of £40,000 earning 25 points instead of 45. After that, the Tier 1 (General) criteria were tightened further, with the minimum points threshold being raised from 75 to 80. Finally, in December 2010, the visa was closed entirely to new applicants.

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A programme for flexible, highly skilled migration was first introduced in the UK in 2002. This was part of the then Labour government’s “Highly Skilled Migrant Programme” (HSMP). At the time of its introduction, it was described as “an individual route for highly skilled people who have the skills and experience required by the United Kingdom to compete in the global economy”.

In 2008 HSMP was succeeded by the introduction of the current tiered immigration system. Today, Tier 1 only has a handful of categories still open within it. While the “General” category that I came on has closed, there are others still open for investors, entrepreneurs, and the “exceptionally talented”. Getting into those categories requires having a lot of money or sponsorship by one of five “designated competent bodies”, such as the Royal Academy or Tech City UK. Last year, 1,799 immigrants came to the UK via these three Tier 1 categories. This compares with 10,127 who came in under the “General” route in 2010 – the last year that route was open to overseas applicants.

A few months ago, it was also announced that, after April 2015, no more extensions will be granted to current holders of the visa. For those wishing to stay, the choice is between applying for what’s called “indefinite leave to remain” (ILR) or trying to move to another tier – probably Tier 2, thus tying oneself to an employer. ILR, if awarded, means the end of visa extension applications and is also a step closer to naturalisation as a British citizen if desired.

. . .

In many ways, highly skilled visa holders are ideal citizens. Those from outside Europe aren’t allowed to claim benefits, even though they pay tax, and they ultimately have to be up to something gainful to be allowed to stay. But they do kill a lot of trees. Every two or three years, the Tier 1 (General) immigrant must undergo a ritual with the Home Office to prove sufficient earnings over the past year to qualify for a visa extension. Proof must take the form of two sets of original or stamped paperwork, such as bank statements and earnings slips. A missing statement for a single month can prove fatal to an application for a visa extension.

The paperwork then gets sent to the Home Office, along with a fee north of £1,000, your passport and soon-to-expire residence permit. Since applications take several weeks to process, this makes travel rather difficult, so many opt for a fast-track, same-day decision process by making an in-person appointment at one of seven far-flung “visa premium service centres” around the UK. This costs an additional £400, none of which is refundable in the event of cancellation or if Belfast is the only available location.

. . .

The service centre on the third floor of Lunar House in Croydon, where I go to apply in person for ILR, looks like the result of a liaison between a motorway service station and an airport departure lounge. There are metal detectors, and seats with uncomfortable armrests. There’s also a café with table seating, a children’s corner, and a sign stating, “Costa Coffee is served here”.

Screens in the café and departure lounge areas of the visa centre display grids seven across and 11 down. These show ticket numbers that are either “awaiting biometric verification” or “under consideration”. The biometrics are fingerprints and photos taken in cubicles reached through a glass door with a gigantic black fingerprint on it. A couple with two children sit next to me in the café. If they’re also applying for ILR, it will have cost them £5,972 to be here. For me on my own, it’s £1,493: the application fee plus the same-day in-person service fee.

If my application is successful, I’ll be allowed to stay in the UK permanently. After seven years of study in the UK, and five years working here, it’s less a question of “Do I want to stay here?”, and more “Can I eliminate the risk of being kicked out of my home?”. Even so, a sign on the wall for “asylum interviews” affords some sobering perspective. I am reminded that it is a luxury to be able to express a preference between living in the highly developed country of my birth and another equally developed country of my choice.

This in-person application has, of course, taken many months of preparation and document gathering, not least because of the requirement to list every absence from the UK over the past five years and get the two employers I’ve had over that time to attest to time abroad spent on business or on paid holiday. I also had to pass the “Life in the UK” test. Revising for that involved building a body of knowledge that’s mostly useful for pub quizzes. Number of people on a Scottish jury: 15. The flower of Wales? A daffodil.

On an April morning in Croydon, the group applying to the visa service centre consists primarily of dressed-down City types. Several are accompanied by young people in suits. I eventually learn that they are from law firms, and have been hired to walk clients through the steps of the premium visa service. This makes me scowl: surely anyone accepting that much hand-holding does not deserve the moniker “highly skilled immigrant”. (Using a freedom of information request, I later learn that about 30 per cent of people granted Tier 1 (General) visas use law firms.)

I sit quietly, watching my ticket number progress.

. . .

The new Biometric Residence Permit I receive after my successful application for ILR is notable for two things: an expiry date that’s 10 years away and the absence of the phrase stating that I have “no recourse to public funds”. While I don’t plan on claiming benefits, it’s reaffirming to have similar rights to other taxpayers for the first time in 12 years in the UK as a student and highly skilled Tier 1 (General) visa holder. I won’t lose the right to stay in the UK so long as I don’t leave the country for longer than two years. In less than a year from now, I can apply for naturalisation as a British citizen – something I intend to do. Having spent so much of my adult life here, I feel more of this country than I do of the US.

Sadly, potential migrants are likely to be less positive: the changes to the UK immigration system make it much less attractive for the highly skilled, as almost all the routes in require you to be tied to one particular job and employer.

The Migration Observatory study was unable to make conclusions about the effects of tighter visa policies on the overall stock of the highly-skilled in the UK – its commentary, rather, considered flow. But, fewer highly-educated professionals are arriving and more flexible points-based programmes are still open in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The UK will lose highly-qualified, young migrants to all these countries.

Some of this is balanced out by an increased flow of highly skilled immigrants from recession-hit EU economies such as Spain and Italy. But more work is needed to determine what the UK has to do to ensure the competitiveness of its talent pool, especially as improving the skills of the native population can take time.

In the meantime, I reflect on my good fortune. That I was able to choose the UK and that, at the time, the UK was willing to have me. I hope the current stance softens. Even Americans can learn to stand on the right side of the escalator.

Lisa Pollack is FT.com head of new projects
lisa.pollack@ft.com; Twitter: @LSPollack

Photograph: Greg Funnell

(If you are viewing this story on the FT’s web app, on mobile or tablet, and you’d like to try the points calculator, please click here. The calculator will open in your browser.)

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Letter in response to this article:

US visa process is infinitely worse / From Mr Pranab Kumar Naik

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