A government scheme designed to attract some of the best global tech talent to the UK is understood to be struggling, Techworld can reveal.
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.
As part of an effort to get more of the world's best tech entrepreneurs and software engineers to come to the UK, prime minister David Cameron announced last December that the government was going to allow Tech City UK to endorse 200 of the 1000 slots. At the time, Cameron said more overseas talent was neeeded if the UK wanted to overcome the skills gap that exists in the tech sector.
Tech City UK joined a list of prestigious institutions that the Home Office permits to endorse overseas talent, including: Arts Council England, British Academy, Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.
The Tech City UK pathway has been open since April this year but the organisation, funded with approximately £1.7 million of taxpayer’s money each year, has refused to reveal how many tech workers the scheme has attracted, suggesting it may be having some initial teething problems.
Meanwhile, the Royal Academy of Engineering, which can't endorse as many migrants as Tech City UK, was quick to tell Techworld that it has endorsed 8 candidates of the 13 exceptional talent visa applications it has received since January.
The Home Office would not give Techworld figures on the number of Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visas issued and significantly, no mention was made of the visa in an otherwise comprehensive report on UK immigration statistics, published at the end of August.
Not enough overseas promotion
Russ Shaw, founder and CEO of Tech London Advocates (TLA), a private sector led coalition of individuals from the tech sector and broader community who aim to support startups, told Techworld: “The challenge here is how do we promote the exceptional talent visa because I don’t think there’s a big take up of it so far.”
Shaw, whose organisation boasts over 900 advocates from the likes of Google, Facebook and Cisco, said the visa needs to be promoted more overseas if it is to be successful.
“I don’t think we should be actively promoting it here," he said. "If we’re smart we’ll take this out to some of those other places around the world, promote it, and that could be, I don’t know yet, a good way to fill more of these exceptional talent visas.”
The former Skype employee has been working with the Home Office on the issue of immigration for over a year.
In May, Shaw and his team partnered with the Home Office to offer a series of immigration workshops to UK startups. The workshops, which fall under a programme know as Home Office Hours, are designed to give UK tech entrepreneurs and businesses access to immigration officials.
Home Office Hours expansion
“At the moment it’s for UK startups,” said Shaw. "The Home Office Hours have been a good way for startups to say, ‘Look, I’ve got people in India, in China, in the US tat I want to bring here but I can’t. How can you help me or what process do I need to follow?'”
But Shaw believes that if the scheme was taken overseas then it would help the Home Office and Tech City UK to attract more talent.
“The idea came from our first Home Office Hours event at Google Campus where a guy from Dubai put his hand up and said: ‘This is interesting. If you did this event in Dubai you’d fill 50 visas in one afternoon.”
Shaw said he is in discussions with the Home Office about expanding Home Office Hours to San Francisco. “Following on from that I’m hoping we can do one in New York early next year. I’ve said look other places might be Bangalore.
Tech City UK was unable to say if it has endorsed any tech workers since it was granted the power to do so in April. The organisation added that it was hard to give a definitive figure on the number of visas that it has awarded because there are several applications in the pipeline at the moment.
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," he said.
Tech City UK claims it is promoting the visa through UK Trade & Investment outposts around the world.