UK talent visas: governments vie to turn brain drains into brain gains

Talent is like any other input: you can build more at home or you can import it. Britain’s latest wheeze — the high potential individual visa, available from next month — aims to scale up the latter route.

The UK is far from alone in seeking foreign brains and skills. The US has the H-1B visa for speciality jobs. More than 407,000 were approved last fiscal year, largely in computing.

China has a plethora of schemes, including the contentious Thousand Talents Programme. Designed primarily to redress the brain drain by luring ethnic Chinese furnished with Ivy League qualifications, the scheme aroused suspicions of spying and technology theft.

Britain is likewise aiming for the stars of the educational firmaments. Applicants must have attended a top university. Unsurprisingly, US universities dominate the rankings on which the Home Office will compile its list but there are showings from Europe. University of Tokyo, National University of Singapore and China’s Tsinghua University and Peking University all feature in the Times’ top 40.

Unlike golden visas, wealth is not a factor; although applicants will need to have £1,270. There is no need to have a job, opening the door to entrepreneurs and also negating the need for would-be employers to pay a sponsor fee.

The HPI, which is “highly selective” but not capped, is part of a broader set of global mobility schemes designed to usher in talent. Do such schemes work? The UK has ratcheted up failures before. The Highly Skilled Migrant Programme shut up shop after six years; some visa holders did not end up doing highly skilled jobs. The Tier 1 (general) visa, similarly points based, was likewise abused and had an even shorter life.

The latest scheme, while not dependent on wealth per se, is effectively limited to the rich world — or such parts of it with sufficiently well-off middle classes to support globally competitive universities. The advantage, of course, is simplicity: tight criteria means less time spent processing applications.

Talent schemes’ biggest weakness — at least in the US and UK — is something with which every chief executive will be familiar: how to spot the real stars and reel them in. This is made worse by the absence of follow-up to see where applicants end up. Talent, like anything else, needs to be productive too.

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