Along with many other industries in the UK, the life sciences sector is experiencing issues with recruiting the talent it needs.
In the government’s Life Sciences Vision policy paper, published in July 2021, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy states its aim is to make the UK the leading global hub for life sciences. In practice though, how much support is there within the current immigration system to provide the UK and its employers with the talent they need?
This is particularly relevant in the context of Brexit. With UK businesses no longer having unfettered and relatively cost-free access to the EU’s pool of talent, what options are available to them?
Sponsorship - Skilled Worker category
Companies must first hold a Skilled Worker sponsor licence to sponsor an individual under this category. The company then assigns a Certificate of Sponsorship to the individual to support their immigration application.
It is only possible to sponsor for roles which are medium skilled or above – this equates to a role at A-level skill level or above and can now include, for example, laboratory technicians. To be eligible to apply under the Skilled Worker route the individual must be paid at least the appropriate minimum salary (which depends on the role and the individual’s circumstances but is usually at least £25,600 per annum) and the individual must also meet an English language requirement for the application.
The advantage of the Skilled Worker category is that individuals should be able to apply for indefinite leave to remain (also known as settlement) after spending five continuous years in the UK as a Skilled Worker, provided they meet all the requirements for the application.
Sponsorship can be expensive for the employer however – costs can vary from around £6,000 to £10,000 to sponsor one individual for a five-year Skilled Worker visa. Sponsors must also comply with fairly onerous compliance duties, including reporting and record-keeping obligations for each sponsored worker. The extra costs and administrative burden make it particularly difficult for smaller businesses to engage with the sponsorship system. Given that the number of UK life sciences start-ups increased by 24% during the period from 2016 to 2020, this could affect the life sciences sector more than most.
Sponsorship – Senior or Specialist Worker category (previously called Intra-Company Transfer)
This is a temporary immigration category which allows companies to transfer overseas employees from an overseas group company to the UK company for up to five years (or nine years in some circumstances).
As it is part of the sponsorship system, companies must first hold a sponsor licence under this category before they are able to sponsor someone. Where companies already hold a sponsor licence and have overseas entities they may wish to transfer people from, they should double-check the sponsor licence register to see if their licence includes the Senior/Specialist Worker tier.
If a multinational company does not have a Senior/Specialist Worker sponsor licence, it should consider adding this tier to its licence.
Generally, individuals wishing to apply under this immigration route must have been employed by the overseas entity (which must already be included on the company’s sponsor licence as an overseas linked entity) for at least 12 months. They must also be paid at least the appropriate minimum salary – again, this depends on the role and the individual’s circumstances. It is worth noting, though, that the general minimum salary threshold is £42,400 per annum and so is set higher than for the Skilled Worker threshold.
The main advantage of this route is that the individual does not need to meet the English language requirement. There is also an upcoming new exemption from one of the immigration application fees – the Immigration Skills Charge – which comes into force on 1 January 2023. This exemption will apply where an EU or Latvian national is being transferred to the UK from an EU company (included on the company’s sponsor licence) for up to three years and could mean savings of up to £3,000 for some employers.
The time that an individual spends in the UK under this route does not lead to any right to apply for settlement. Individuals who are in the UK under this category can however switch into the Skilled Worker category or a different immigration category from within the UK if they intend to remain long-term in the UK, subject to meeting the criteria for those applications.
High Potential Individual visa
The new High Potential Individual visa may be particularly helpful for employers in the life sciences sector given that many potential recruits are likely to have studied at prestigious universities.
This unsponsored route was introduced in May 2022 and allows someone to come to the UK for two years (or three years if they obtained a PhD) if they have been awarded their degree level qualification by one of the eligible overseas universities on the Home Office list. They must have been awarded the qualification in the last five years before they submit their application.
Successful applicants can then work freely within the UK labour market, but this is a temporary visa category and unfortunately does not lead to settlement. Individuals must either leave the UK before their High Potential Individual visa expires or switch into a different immigration category, such as Skilled Worker.
Global Talent visa
This can be a useful category to bring in high-calibre individuals who are already established as world leaders or potential world leaders in various sectors, including in academia, research or digital technology.
Applicants must generally first be endorsed by an approved body, such as the Royal Society. It is also possible for applicants in academia or research to qualify by obtaining a research grant or fellowship that is approved by UK Research and Innovation (a non-departmental public body of the UK government).
Eligible individuals are then able to apply for a five-year visa from the outset and individuals may be in a position to apply for indefinite leave to remain after either three or five years, depending on their endorsement.
Whilst this is a useful category, it will only apply to very few individuals who can meet the high bar of being established as world leaders in their field or show that they have the potential to become one.
These categories are for those wanting to set up new businesses in the UK. The eligibility criteria are difficult to meet as applicants must show they have a new business idea which is "innovative, viable and scalable". They must also obtain an endorsement from one of the approved endorsing bodies.
Individuals may be able to obtain indefinite leave to remain after three years under the Innovator route, subject to meeting stringent business requirements which usually include job creation and income generation requirements.
In practice, uptake of these routes, in particular the Innovator category, has been low because of the strict eligibility requirements. On the ground, these immigration categories are not in fact helping the UK to attract entrepreneurs or make the UK genuinely open for business.
We’ve only provided an outline here of the key immigration categories available. Whilst there are many different immigration categories, it is questionable how useful many of them are to UK employers generally and particularly to growth sectors such as life sciences.
Sponsorship remains the most popular route by which to employ non-UK nationals. However, companies who sponsor individuals must budget for significant costs under the sponsorship system and ensure they are able to manage the administrative burden of the visa process and meeting their compliance obligations. Not all employers can or will want to bear this burden.
Other categories, such as the High Potential Individual visa, are more limited in scope and only allow individuals to remain in the UK for up to two (or possibly three) years – which is less time than employers usually wish to retain employees for. Other routes, such as the Innovator category, contain criteria which are difficult to meet in practice.
As the cost-of-living crisis rolls on and with the high likelihood of a UK recession, it remains to be seen how businesses and employers will adapt. Rather than simply trying to reduce net migration figures, we hope that the government will implement a more targeted approach towards helping UK businesses, including in key sectors such as life sciences, by providing more support within the immigration system.