As the tech and science world struggles in the face of skills shortages, the UK is turning critical talent away.
Hundreds of critical roles in the UK economy are going unfilled because of the sheer number of skilled people being refused visas.
A response by the Home Office to a freedom of information (FOI) request by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) revealed that, of 6,080 total refusals in just a few months, 3,500 were for engineering, IT, technology, STEM teaching and medical roles.
The reason appears to be due to limits or caps being set.
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For example, out of more than 1,600 IT specialists and engineers that were offered jobs in the UK and refused visas, the reason given was that the number applying exceeded the monthly limit allowed to enter the UK.
This comes at a time when the UK is hurtling headlong toward a very uncertain exit from the EU.
It also comes at a time when the tech economy in the UK is booming, with a bullish report by Tech Nation today (17 May) claiming that the tech sector in the UK has grown 2.6 times faster than the rest of the British economy. Not only that, but the number of jobs in digital and tech rose at five times the rate of the rest of the economy.
The fact that the UK Home Office is turning away applicants with highly sought-after skills could send the wrong signal to employers, especially multinational firms with a presence in Britain.
According to CaSE, the FOI request response from the Home Office detailed the number of Tier 2 refusals due to the annual cap in each month between December 2016 and March 2018. Since December, the UK government has refused more than 6,000 applications for skilled overseas workers due to the arbitrary cap on visas. Those turned away included engineers, tech professionals, doctors and teachers.
CaSE executive director Dr Sarah Main warned that with hundreds of critical roles being unfilled, it could damage the UK’s productivity, public services, business confidence and international reputation.
“These figures show the scale of the problem and the urgency to find a solution,” she said.
“Across the country, businesses and public services are being blocked at the last hurdle from recruiting the people they need, including in health, engineering and tech, due to the visa cap. This leaves employers frustrated and the public poorly served.”
Main said that what the UK needs is a predictable immigration system, and that the refusals are sending a damaging message that the UK is not open to the “best and brightest across the world”.
She added: “The cap is beginning to cause damage and it needs to be addressed quickly. In the immediate term, shortage and PhD-level roles should be made exempt from the cap. This would be in line with the priority already afforded to these roles and would create the headroom for other vital roles.
“In the long term, an immigration system for a ‘global Britain’ that supports research and innovation should not feature a cap on the international specialists we want to attract.”
Updated, 4.25pm, 17 May 2018: This article was updated to clarify that 3,500 STEM and medical professionals have been refused UK visas, not 3,800.