A government quango tasked with supporting UK technology businesses is struggling to attract highly-skilled and much-needed software developers and entrepreneurs to the UK through a prestigious visa scheme, Techworld can reveal. 

Last April, Tech City UK, a taxpayer-funded organisation established by prime minister David Cameron in 2012, joined an elite group of five British institutions, including the Royal Society and the Arts Council, that are allowed to endorse and fast track the very best overseas talent to the UK under the Home Office’s Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa. 

UK flag in globe iStock FotografiaBasica
UK tech companies need the best talent in the world to compete with Silicon Valley rivals ©iStock/Fotografiabasica

The “Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa”, which costs £874 to apply for, was introduced by the Home Office in June 2008 as a way of fast-tracking up to 1,000 migrants a year into UK companies across a variety of sectors.

Just seven visas

Tech City UK was given the power to endorse up to 200 of the 1,000 each year, but figures obtained by Techworld under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) reveal that only seven visas have been awarded by Tech City UK since it was granted the power.

The organisation, spearheaded by Cameron’s technology advisor, Baroness Joanna Shields, a former European managing director for Google and Facebook, received just 10 applications for the visa between 6 April 2014 and 1 April 2015, suggesting it has been poorly marketed around the world. Just one application was rejected and two more are still under review.

The figures show that Tech City UK received fewer applications than any other institution with endorsement powers. A total of 160 applications were submitted under the visa scheme, with 106 endorsed, 37 rejected and 17 under review. The Arts Council, for example, received the most, with 83 applications, while the Royal Society received the next highest number, at 32. 

Concerns around how well Tech City UK was using its powers were first identified last August, when the organisation refused to reveal how many people it had endorsed.  

The UK skills shortage, often cited as a key limitation to the growth of UK technology companies, has led many businesses to look outside the UK for talent. Bringing in people from Europe is relatively easy due to EU immigration laws, but attracting specialists from tech hubs like Silicon Valley and Bangalore is harder.

Tech London advocates, a private sector-led coalition of individuals from the tech sector and broader community who aim to support startups, found that a lack of talent and strict immigration policies are holding back London's tech companies.

'Too much paperwork'

Migreat, an organisation that helps people worldwide to move to the UK, has claimed that the UK is preventing exceptional international talents, such as Seedcamp winners and entrepreneurs that raised more than £1 million start-up capital, from coming to its shores. 

Josephine Goube, director of partnerships at Migreat, told Techworld: “The numbers are low because of a lack of visibility and transparency of the visa requirements and process.”

Goube said that the visa is complex and bureaucratic, adding that it involves making two applications (one to the Home Office and one to Tech City UK). She also said the papers are difficult to find and obtain. 

“If you make the information personalised to the case, clear, simple to read and navigate, people will discover this new visa,” she added. 

The seven individuals endorsed by Tech City UK are currently unknown.

“Tech City would benefit from building a campaign of role models and promoting them as examples of exceptionally talented individuals,” said Goube. “When you give people real stories, they can relate and start to explore if the visa suits their own profile.”

 Poor marketing?

Last year, the Home Office ran a series of workshops to inform UK tech companies and entrepreneurs about immigration and visas. One workshop, held at Google Campus in Shoreditch, was dedicated to the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa. At the event, attendees were informed about the criteria for endorsement, the application process and the role that Tech City UK is playing in the implementation of the visa. 

The number of attendees at this event are unknown. However, the low number of applications for Tech City UK's Tier 1 Execptional Talent Visa would suggest the majority of the workshop attendees chose not to put someone forward for the visa. 

One UK tech company desperate to fill a skills gap in its London office is Intent HQ, which gives website owners insight into who is visiting their site. CEO Jonathan Lakin said overseas talent is “vital” to his business. Lakin said he has recruited several of his staff from European cities with strong universities, such as Barcelona, but sometimes he needs to look further afield. “This global pool often brings a different approach to the problems we tackle that helps foster genuine innovation,” he said.

Techworld asked Shields to reveal the figures at a conference in March, but she refused, adding it’s “still early days”. 

Tech City UK declined to comment on the figures, adding it is currently bound by purdah. 

Last September, Ravi Lal, head of operations at Tech City UK, told Techworld that the "bar has been set very high" for candidates looking to apply for the exceptional talent visa.  

"Since its launch in April 2014, we have seen interest in the scheme and Tech City UK is currently promoting the programme internationally to ensure we continue to raise awareness of this opportunity and attract highly-skilled non-EU citizens to the UK.”