Tech Nation along with its predecessor Tech City UK have been providing endorsements under the Global Talent (previously known as the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent)) route since 2014. During that time, the endorsement requirements have changed drastically.
Against the backdrop of a number of new immigration routes opening in 2022, we consider Tech Nation’s successes and failures, and we also assess what the future looks like.
The Global Talent route
The Global Talent route is for those who are highly skilled in the fields of tech, humanities, science, the arts, architecture, fashion and other arts. Successful applicants can be granted leave in the UK for up to five years, can work in any sector, and in certain circumstances, can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain after three years, rather than the usual five years. This route, compared to others, is incredibly flexible.
As part of this route, most applicants must receive an endorsement from the relevant body in their field. This must confirm that they meet the Exceptional Promise criteria (for potential leaders in the relevant field) or Exceptional Talent criteria (for leaders in the relevant field). Applicants must make an application and provide evidence of their expertise. If the Endorsing Body provides an endorsement, the applicant can then go on to make the stage 2 immigration application.
Tech Nation is the relevant body for tech applicants, and this route is the UK’s ‘pitch to attract the best and brightest to grow… tech industries and create jobs.’ In 2020, nearly 1,200 applications were made to the Tech Nation visa scheme, and over 4,200 applications have been made since the route was created.
Experts making decisions
The immigration system has often been criticised for having subjective requirements, such as demonstrating that a proposed business is ‘genuine’. Home Office caseworkers then have to make decisions in areas where they may not be appropriately qualified, such as reviewing a proposed business plan and deciding whether a proposed business would thrive in the UK.
Subjective requirements are important when wanting to attract an individual based on their skills and experience. Broad and holistic criteria allow more diverse applicants compared to objective requirements such as having an academic qualification from a preeminent university (see below for the High Potential Individual route for instance).
Ensuring that an expert body makes decisions in these subjective areas, rather than a Home Office caseworker, is a vast improvement. Tech Nation is world renowned for its understanding of the tech field. In our experience, Tech Nation caseworkers and staff have been dedicated to ensuring that the UK attracts the best and brightest tech talent. When we receive decisions from caseworkers, these are often detailed, specific and can even be empathetic. Tech Nation as an organisation also regularly reaches out to stakeholders, including to immigration practitioners.
This holistic approach ensures that when experts make decisions, their main motive is to strengthen digital tech talent in the UK based on their wide understanding of the field.
The guidance setting out the requirements
When Tech City first starting providing endorsements, the endorsement criteria was relatively short. Applicants had to provide evidence of a proven track record of innovation in the digital technology sector, a mandatory requirement, and also meet two of the following criteria:
- Have led in the development of new or leading-edge technology.
- Have had significant commercial success in the digital technology sector.
- Have received or been nominated for a prestigious internationally recognised prize in the digital technology sector.
- Have been recognised as a world leading talent in the digital technology sector.
In addition, applicants had to provide a letter of recommendation from a recognised expert in the field. Only ‘exceptionally talented’ applicants could apply, there was no option for ‘exceptional promise’.
The guidance provided examples of the type of evidence that could be assessed such as ‘Authoritative Contributions via award, speaking engagements, or authorship’.
The guidance quickly ballooned. It is now closer to three times in length and contained strict limits on the number of documents that can be provided plus rules on the time period over which the evidence must cover.
The mandatory criteria is largely the same requiring the applicant to demonstrate that they have been recognised as (or recognised as having the potential to be) a leading talent in the digital technology sector in the last five years.
The qualifying criteria has shifted significantly to include:
- a proven track record for innovation as a founder or senior executive of a product-led digital technology company if applying under exceptional talent, or providing at least one example of innovation as an employee of a product-led digital technology working in a new digital field or concept, if applying under exceptional promise;
- proof of recognition for work beyond the applicant’s occupation that contributes to the advancement of the field;
- making significant technical, commercial or entrepreneurial contributions to the field as a founder or employee, or as a senior executive or board member if applying under exceptional talent, of a product-led digital technology company; or
- exceptional ability, if applying under exceptional talent, or one example if applying under exceptional promise, in the field by academic contributions, through research published or endorsed by an expert.
There are now a number of ‘relevant evidence’ sections, which make up the majority of this guidance, as well as a specific definition of ‘product-led digital technology companies’, and guidance on whether one is a technical or business applicant. Applicants also now have to provide three letters of recommendation, which should relate to their work for a business or organisation.
Over the years the number and nature of the changes have led to the guidance becoming increasingly bloated.
Numerous changes to the Immigration Rules
In general, the more frequently there are changes to an immigration system, the more inaccessible it becomes.
Immigration practitioners have experienced frequent changes to the wider immigration system since the Points Based System began and the Law Commission report on the subject set out that:
There is a clear consensus among respondents that frequent changes to the Rules have a detrimental impact on users, particularly non-expert users. They make the system more confusing to navigate, and make errors more likely. They have a wider impact on applicants’ lives and can contribute to operational disconnects…
The frequency of changes to the Immigration Rules has, thankfully, reduced.
However, changes to the Tech Nation requirements have continued. There were six amendments in 2021, altering some requirements significantly, which is more changes than to the Immigration Rules as a whole.
This is not conducive to a stable and clear route for applicants or immigration practitioners who advise them. There is also a degree of moving the goalposts, due to the changes affecting the simplicity of the route. This can create frustration amongst the very people the route is designed to attract.
The increasingly technical nature of the Rules
As well as the changes being frequent, the criteria have become much more technical. For instance, providing ‘proof of recognition for work beyond the applicant’s occupation that contributes to the advancement of the field’ was a classic requirement to rely on. This was originally a mandatory requirement. When this was first introduced the guidance stated that:
‘You can demonstrate this by providing evidence that you have played an active role and have a reputation as an emerging leader in your ecosystem.
Examples may include mentoring, advising, organizing interest groups, leading on policy, teaching if at university or participating in clubs or societies for the furthering of the field.
Examples of relevant evidence include:
- Your StackOverflow profile showing significant contribution to discussions around code;
- Evidence of contributions to an Open Source project;
- Your GitHub profile demonstrating active participation in a collaborative project;
- A link to one or more videos of talks or conferences that have had a significant viewership;
- An op-ed or news article that exemplifies thought leadership, evidence of mentorship;
- Evidence of sharing or teaching skills, such as mentoring if at a workplace’.
This is now a qualifying criteria and the guidance sets out:
‘You can demonstrate this by providing evidence that you have gone beyond your day-to-day profession to engage in an activity that contributes to the advancement of the sector. Examples may include mentoring, advising, organising interest groups, leading on policy, teaching at a university or participating in clubs or societies for the furthering of the field.
Examples of relevant evidence include:
- Evidence of contributions to an Open Source project.
- Your GitHub profile demonstrating active participation in a collaborative project.
- Your Stack Overflow profile showing significant contribution to discussions around code.
- All contributions (for example to an Open-Source project, GitHub, or Stack Overflow profile etc.) must demonstrate a consistent and ongoing track record of contributions to the sector. Contributions which have been made solely to support the timing of your application are unacceptable.
- Talks or conference speaking that have had a significant viewership. Conferences must be widely regarded as sector-leading events for your field with at least 100 attendees (not registrations). As a speaker you must be speaking on the main stage and the invitation to speak must not have been paid for by your organisation as part of any sponsorship. Leading a workshop or running a session at a conference is not sufficient. Evidence should include your speech with either a link to the video of you speaking, the programme of events displaying your talk or a reference letter from the conference organiser with explanation of why you were asked to speak.
- An op-ed or news article that exemplifies thought leadership, evidence of mentorship.
- Evidence of mentorship must be for activity outside the applicant’s organisation or normal course of work duties and excludes mentorship of other commercial organisations as part of a commercial arrangement. Mentorship should be on behalf of a structured programme with selection criteria and is inclusive of non-profit charities and social mentorship programmes. You must be able to demonstrate a consistent track record of mentoring and have received recognition for your personal contribution. Mentoring at a university or a single startup is not sufficient. When mentoring alongside other mentors (for example at a top-tier accelerator) you must have been a senior mentor that may be evidenced through a letter of reference from the programme. Note that simply training a colleague, providing general support or advice, or advising at a company of someone you know is not considered to meet the definition of mentorship.
Letters of Reference alone are not sufficient and should be supported by other evidence’.
This is vastly more complex than previously. The previous example of mentoring, advising, organising interest groups now means now means mentorship that is structured. There is selection criteria demonstrating a history of mentorship, where the applicant must be a senior mentor and recognised for their personal contribution, and the evidence must include a reference letter as well as other evidence.
This requirement is now so limited it is often difficult to rely on. This is the most drastic change, however the other criteria have also become increasingly stringent.
The guidance has become increasingly unwieldly. We are aware of refusals that we have overturned on an endorsement review simply by pointing out that the evidence does meet a specified example.
Up to 2019 the endorsement success rate was 62%. By 2020 the endorsement rate, as set out in the Tech Nation report, was just over 50% (although this varies significantly depending on the geographical location of the application). The endorsement rate is, tellingly, not included in the 2021 report.
The technical nature of the guidance, and the frequent changes, has caused exasperation amongst applicants, who have to spend more time, effort and frequently money ensuring their application jumps through the right hoops. Considering the route was broad and subjective originally, so that expert Tech Nation caseworkers could make decisions and use their subjective judgement, the repeated changes to the guidance has made the route restrictive and stringent. If applications have been refused on small, technocratic points, rather than a wider, inclusive, view of their skills and expertise, this has the potential to exclude some of the brightest and the best and the endorsement rate may continue to fall.
Several new immigration routes have been introduced recently, including the High Potential Individual (HPI) route, the Global Business Mobility route and the Graduate route. These are designed to be quick and straightforward for world-class applicants, although they do not offer the same flexibility as the Global Talent route.
These routes all have the potential to attract the same sort of applicants who would apply under the Tech Nation Global Talent scheme. The HPI route in particular may attract similar applicants due to the requirement to have graduated from a highly renowned university, a feature common in many Tech Nation Global Talent applicants.
These routes are significantly easier to navigate than the Tech Nation visa, often with less time and stress. If the requirements of a Tech Nation endorsement are made more stringent and technical, then it may be the number of applicants, as well as the endorsement rate, which decreases.
The Immigration Rules as a whole have been undergoing a period of simplification after years of ad-hoc, technical additions. Tech Nation may wish to consider this also.
How our immigration solicitors can help
We are experienced in preparing Global Talent endorsement and immigration applications for individuals spanning a range of industries and sectors. We also prepare challenges in the event that an application has been refused.
If you need further information about the Global Talent route, please contact us or complete our enquiry form below.