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Attracting the ‘Brightest & Best’ Assumes Britain Still Holds Appeal For Migrants

Written by
Anne Morris
Date of Publication:
17 February 2020

In a statement to a national tabloid this weekend, Home Secretary Priti Patel has pledged to implement a new immigration system from 1 January 2021 that “will attract the top talent from anywhere in the world… the brightest and the best from around the globe who will help our economy to thrive.”

A strong sentiment, but one that is based on a potentially weak assumption.

The question is whether the UK will retain its international appeal while the Government pursues restrictive policies, sends out clear anti-immigration messages and perpetuates the hostile environment.

Building an immigration system open only to those who meet the skills-based points threshold works only if such people want and choose to come to the UK.

Britain's appeal as a destination for migrant workers may already be in decline. EU migration has continued to drop since the Brexit referendum and according to ONS analysis of UK migration figures, since 2016 there has been a fall in non-EU immigration for work, while immigration for study has been gradually increasing. For the year ending March 2019, study - not work - was the main reason for non-EU citizens moving to the UK.

After gradual increases in overall non-EU migration since 2013, levels stabilised to 2019. The figures for 2019/2020 will be telling as to whether this plateau signals the beginning of a slowdown, with fewer non-EU migrants coming to the UK.

Global competition for talent

Wider factors outside of UK domestic policy are also at play. The global market for highly skilled workers has never been more competitive, across all industries and skillsets.

Natural competitors for such talent, such as Canada and Australia - Western, developed, English speaking nations – arguably offer more open cultures that are more tolerant and welcoming of migrants, while the UK's hostile environment prevails.

Now that the UK has left the European Union, and with the end of EU freedom of movement 31st December 2020, Britain has lost a critical advantage in the global talent market as the gateway to mainland Europe.

The implications for the UK economy of diminishing skilled migrant workers cannot be underestimated. Losing out on talent to other countries threatens the long-term viability of the UK as a global leader in fields such as tech and academia.

It has long been Boris Johnson's vision to attract the brightest and best to the UK. With the numbers of non-EU citizens studying in the UK remaining high, proposals to extend the post-study work visa to two years may offer an appealing and more straightforward route for international graduates to start their careers in the UK.

The new Global Talent Visa, due to open for applications on 20th February 2020, has been developed specifically to attract highly skilled workers. But this route appears, to all intents and purposes, to be a repackaged version of its predecessor, the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa, which itself was consistently undersubscribed.

The wrong message

In the pursuit of controlling immigration and borders, the Government risks damaging the appeal of the UK to those migrants deemed 'desirable' and who would meet the points criteria under the new skills-based immigration system.

It will take more than sound bites to attract international high-calibre migrants when the message is unequivocally one of nationalism, closed borders and hostile environment, at a time when the country needs to be laying out the welcome mat to build post-EU Britain.