Migration: helping Scotland prosper

Paper detailing how a tailored migration policy, within a UK framework, could operate to meet Scotland's distinct needs.

Influencing change in the UK system

Overarching Objectives

The Scottish Visa and the rural pilot schemes are both new measures that the Scottish Government believes should be introduced in the UK immigration system. Further reform of other immigration routes is also essential.

The current UK immigration system does not reflect the values and principles that the Scottish Government has identified. The first discussion paper set out five areas where the UK Government should revise its policy:

  • Reintroduce the post-study work visa recommended by the Smith Commission;
  • End the net migration target;
  • End the immigration skills charge;
  • Give the Scottish Government a greater say in the Scotland Shortage Occupation List; and 
  • Extend and protect rights in family migration.

The net migration target, to reduce net migration to the UK to the “tens of thousands,” was introduced in 2010. The target is arbitrary, not based on evidence, feeds negative rhetoric about migration and contributes to the sense of the UK as a hostile environment for migrants. It is practically undeliverable, but if it were achieved would be deeply damaging to all of the UK and to Scotland in particular. Economic modelling published by the Scottish Government in 2018 suggests the GDP impact for Scotland of the UK reducing net migration in this way could be over £10 billion per year by 2040. While the current UK Government has suggested that they will move away from a numerical target they remain committed to reducing the level of migration. The UK Government should formally abandon the net migration target and end the distorting effect it has on policy.

The UK Government intends that income generation through fees and charges will underpin the future border and immigration system. As well as excessive fees related to applications for visas, settlement and citizenship, the Home Office levies two specific charges it should review:

  • The Immigration Skills Charge is a £1000 per year charge on employers for each migrant worker they recruit under the current Tier 2. It will be levied on all recruitment through the proposed Skilled Worker route. The charge is reduced for some small and third sector organisations.
  • The Immigration Health Surcharge is a £400 per year charge on non-EEA migrants, including all members of a family at the same rate. A rise in the surcharge to £625 has been proposed. There is currently a lower charge of £300 per year for students and those on the youth mobility scheme. All long-term migrants will be liable for the charge after free movement ends.

Both charges are payable upfront for the entire period of a visa – typically five years. The MAC recommended that the Immigration Skills Charge be retained at its current level of £1000 per skilled worker. This will particularly penalise small and medium enterprises that currently rely on European workers, who would have to pay £5000 upfront for each new recruit on the skilled worker visa. 

If that worker arrived as part of a family of four, they would personally have to pay an additional £8000 upfront for the health surcharge. The Scottish Government strongly opposed the introduction of the health surcharge and believes it should be removed, despite receiving £20.8 million in Barnett consequentials from the surcharge in 2018. The decision in December 2018 to double the Immigration Health Surcharge was morally wrong, as is the new proposal for a £625 charge which more than triples the cost in the space of only a year.

People coming to Scotland will effectively pay twice for healthcare services, both through the health surcharge and their own tax and national insurance contributions. NHS Boards in Scotland have noted that staff such as nurses are having to pay this excessive charge to access the service to which they make such a vital contribution. 

The Scottish Government remains deeply concerned that the burden of these charges will make Scotland a less attractive destination for skilled workers and international students. 

Since the publication of the discussion paper in February 2018 the UK Government has agreed to reintroduce a post-study work visa. While this is welcome it is regrettable that such a change has taken so long when the evidence base for reintroducing the post-study work visa was so clear.

Case Study: Australian immigration system

The Australian immigration system includes both points-based routes, and employer sponsored routes, along with a strong regional focus. It is designed to promote migration to Australia of people with the skills and characteristics the Australian economy and communities in Australia need: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, overseas migration to and from Australia in 2018 resulted in a net increase to Australia’s population of 237,200 people. 

The equivalent figure for net migration to the UK in year-ending December 2018 was 258,000. The UK has over twice the population of Australia. Migrants make up a larger proportion of the population of Australia than in most OECD countries.

Individual States and Territories work with the Department of Home Affairs to attract eligible skilled and business migrants through State and Territory nominated visa programs. The Australian Government’s 2019-20 Budget announcement of a ‘New Regional Visas — Population Package’ significantly expands the regional aspect of the Australian immigration system. The Federal Government is committing $49.6 million (£26 million) in funding to introduce new visas to better support the needs of regional Australia.

New measures as part of this package include:

  • Working holiday makers (a youth mobility scheme) can now apply for a third extension to their visas where they have completed prescribed work in regional Australia.
  • The definition of ‘regional Australia’ is expanded to include all of Australia except the urban centres of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Gold Coast and Perth.
  • New Skilled Work Regional and the Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional replace the existing regional visa schemes. The new visas will require skilled migrants to stay and work in regional Australia before transitioning to permanent residency with the ability to move anywhere in the country.
  • The option of a second Temporary Graduate visa for international graduates of regional universities.

Further information on the Australian immigration system is included at Annex C.

Changes To Routes To Live In Scotland

A new points-based system for the UK

The UK Government previously had a points-based visa route, from 2008 to 2012. It was closed to new applications in 2012 as part of the ‘hostile environment’ measures, in response to what the UK Government perceived as ‘abuse’ of the route. Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, told the House of Commons that over 30% of migrants entering the UK through the points-based route were working in lower-skilled roles.[iii]

A points-based approach to selecting migrants can be an effective way to broaden the range of criteria for eligibility, allowing migrants to score points across multiple human capital characteristics. It is typically not tied to a migrant having a job offer, although that could be one of the criteria for which points are awarded. Migrants are able to enter the labour market and seek work in the same way as resident workers. Therefore, it is not inherently problematic that some migrants entering through a points-based route find work in roles that would not be eligible for the Skilled Worker route. Even if this was considered an ‘abuse’ of the route, the context in which the previous points-based visa route was offered in the years immediately after the financial crisis was very different to today.

The Tier 1 (General) UK visa requirements before it was finally closed awarded points according to:

  • Qualifications
  • Previous Earnings
  • UK Experience
  • Age

It also had mandatory minimum criteria in English language ability, and Maintenance (checking that the individual had sufficient funds to support themselves on entry, set at £945 at that time). The English language requirement was satisfied by being a national of a specified majority English-speaking country (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, as well as a larger group of Caribbean nations), possessing a degree taught in English, or passing an English language test. 

Migrants had to score 80 points overall. They were awarded 30 points for holding a Bachelor degree, 35 points for a Masters degree, or 45 points for a PhD. Points awarded for previous earnings ranged from 5 points if earnings had been in the range of £25,000-30,000, up to 80 points for earnings of £150,000 or above. An additional 5 points were awarded if these previous earnings were earned in the UK (e.g. through working as a student, on a post-study work visa, or another route). Migrants under 30 were awarded 20 points, while those aged 30 to 34 earned 10 points and those aged 35 to 39 earned 5 points.

A points-based system in itself does not imply either an open or a restrictive approach to managing immigration. That is determined by the policy intent of the government, the criteria they select and the points weighting they attach to those criteria. The experience of territories who currently use points-based immigration systems, such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, is that they are effective in promoting migration by allowing applicants to score points across a range of characteristics. 

Both the Canadian and Australian immigration systems include measures to encourage migrants to live and work beyond primary urban centres. It has been suggested that one possibility for the points-based system the UK Government is considering could be additional weighting for living outside of London, to encourage migrants to live and work in other parts of the UK.

Currently, around a third of all non-British nationals in the UK live in London. All other parts of the UK – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England – have a lower share of the non-British population in the UK than their share of the UK population overall.

A points-based system for the UK with a regional or devolved element could potentially be of benefit to Scotland, allowing the Scottish Government to establish a more progressive set of criteria, but what the UK Government has proposed does not go far enough in either the scope of its ambition or the certainty it offers. It is not guaranteed to be a long-term feature of the UK immigration system – like Fresh Talent, it could be removed at will by a future UK Government. That is one reason why the Scottish Government is seeking a tailored approach for Scotland with devolution of powers on migration, which would mean withdrawal in this way could not happen without much greater difficulty. Any move to a points-based immigration system must therefore include a commitment to regional differentiation and to enable a tailored and progressive approach to migration policy for Scotland.

Shortage Occupation Lists 

The MAC completed its recent review of the shortage occupation lists in the context of the current immigration system, and was not able to consider what role the lists might play in a new points-based system.

Feedback from stakeholders the Scottish Government has received is that the shortage occupation lists as they stand were felt not to be an adequate mechanism for responding to labour market demands. It was generally agreed that the shortage lists need to be independent, to be reviewed more frequently, with increased stakeholder input and must incorporate a way of reacting to regional labour shortages. 

The review by the MAC produced a welcome expansion of roles eligible for special consideration in the immigration system. However, the reforms the UK Government has proposed to the Skilled Worker route call into question the purpose of the shortage occupation lists in future. Ending the cap on the number of skilled workers able to come to the UK each year, and removing the unnecessary burden on employers of the Resident Labour Market Test are both welcome improvements, but would negate the main benefits available to shortage occupations. 

One option is for the shortage occupation lists to be a feature of a future points-based system. Additional points could be awarded to migrants suitably qualified for roles in these shortage occupations, such as nurses and scientists.

The shortage lists could also interact with the salary threshold in the Skilled Worker route by allowing important roles that fall below the £30,000 threshold a reduced salary requirement. While this could be of benefit in some cases, it is not guaranteed to be an adequate substitute for reviewing the design of the immigration system, and the Skilled Worker route in particular, to ensure that it is suitable for the needs of employers across all sectors of the economy. 

If the shortage occupation lists continue to play a meaningful role in the future immigration system – whether through a points-based approach or in the Skilled Worker route – the Scottish Government should have the ability to influence and determine what is on the Scotland Shortage Occupation List, as should the other devolved administrations for the new shortage lists in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Family Migration

The term ‘family migration’ usually relates to non-EU nationals entering, remaining in or settling in the UK on the basis of a relationship with a British citizen or a person settled legally in the UK. The term can include fiancé(e)s, proposed civil partners, spouses, civil partners, unmarried or same-sex partners, dependent children, adopted children, parents of children and adult dependents. 

Analysis by the Migration Observatory at Oxford University shows that a majority of non-EU nationals admitted to the UK through family migration in 2017 were partners or children. In 2017, female partners of male residents made up 55% of all family admissions in the UK, male partners of female residents made up 20%, civil partners taken together made up 9%, and children made up 10%.

The UK Government excluded family migration from the review by the MAC of the impact of EEA migration in the UK, and there are no changes to family migration rules proposed in the immigration white paper. The expectation is that when free movement ends after the UK leaves the EU, the current family migration rules would then apply to family members joining European migrants, and to the European family of British citizens. 

The UK family migration rules are considered to be some of the most restrictive among high-income countries, scoring just 33 out of 100 in the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) in 2015. The Migration Observatory have estimated that over 40% of working people in the UK in 2015 could not meet the income requirement for family reunion in the UK immigration system. Increasing the number of people subject to the rules as they stand, rather than improving them to the benefit of all, would be unacceptable. 

The restrictive nature of the family migration route is regularly highlighted in public correspondence to Scottish Ministers. These cases reinforce the concern of the Scottish Government that restrictions on family migration in the UK are having a damaging impact on many Scottish people, their families, their communities and the economy.

In 2012, as part of the ‘hostile environment’ measures, the UK Government introduced a number of changes to the family migration route including:

  • A minimum salary threshold of £18,600, with a higher threshold where there are children involved; 
  • Abolishing immediate settlement of family members on arrival where a couple have been living together for at least four years overseas;
  • A minimum probationary period of five years before family members can apply for settlement in the UK, the rationale being to test the genuineness of the relationship; 
  • A very high threshold for adult dependant relatives, who are now granted leave to remain in the UK only if, through age, illness or disability they cannot perform everyday tasks and they cannot receive care in their home country.

The Scottish Government believes fundamental change is needed to the approach to family migration. There are several areas where policy changes and improvements could be made to better meet Scotland’s needs. An attitudinal change is also required. UK policy frames family migration as a burden on society. The Scottish Government believes this is not true, and that people who are entitled to live in Scotland – both international migrants and UK citizens – should be able to bring their family with them. Scotland needs people to live, work and raise their families here, in light of the pronounced demographic challenge ahead. There is evidence that the ability to bring family members to Scotland is an important factor which encourages migrants to stay long-term. The policy approach to family migration approach to family migration needs to reflect that.

The core policy changes the Scottish Government wants to see in family migration can be grouped into three broad categories:

  • Defining family members – including revising the restrictive definition of ‘family members’ under the family migration route, reforming the current rules whereby when children reach a certain age they are no longer considered to be ‘dependent’ on their parents and therefore cannot enter through the family migration route, and reviewing rules on adult dependant relatives.
  • Financial and maintenance requirements – the income thresholds that sponsoring family members have to meet, along with the savings and maintenance requirements and the provisions for allowing third parties to contribute their support. 
  • Children born or raised in Scotland – a more compassionate and flexible approach to cases involving children and young people who are born in Scotland or have spent their formative years here, with consideration given to individual circumstances, the extent of their integration into society and the length of time they have been living in the UK.

To facilitate a broader discussion about how the family migration rules should operate, the Scottish Government will commission the Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population to look more closely at the impact that current family migration rules have on families in Scotland, with particular regard to the impact on areas of devolved responsibility.


The Ancestry Visa route is currently open to Commonwealth citizens who wish to work in the UK, and have a grandparent born in the UK. This route was introduced in a different context and there are declining numbers of people eligible for it. The Ancestry Visa should be expanded to EU citizens in the same situation, in order to give an additional option for the family of British citizens living in the EU.

British nationality rules mean that if a British citizen born in the UK has a child, that child is automatically British no matter where they are born; but their children in turn are not generally entitled to British citizenship if born abroad. Additionally, some countries – including some EU Member States – do not allow for dual citizenship.

Expanding the Ancestry Visa to allow EU citizens to apply would help ensure that family of British nationals in the EU are able to choose to come to the UK to live and work in future through a dedicated, streamlined route.

Global Talent 

The recent focus by the UK Government on exceptional talent for researchers in science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) fields should be extended to other disciplines, with more endorsing bodies from Scotland.

The new fast-track route will provide eligible individuals with a three-year visa, during which they can come and go from the UK as they choose and promises several advantages such as no visa cap or minimum salary threshold, applicants not requiring a job offer before arriving in the UK, an accelerated route to settlement and the ability to bring dependents (spouses and children) who will have full access to the labour market.

Whilst the Scottish Government welcomes efforts to help make the UK a more attractive place to work for those in STEM fields, the new visa is effectively an expanded version of the Current Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) scheme which already offered all of those features. The Exceptional Talent route was underutilised with only a small proportion of the allocation of 2,000 visas per year being filled. Even when the cap was set at only 1,000 per year, it was not breached. The Exceptional Talent visa only offers a fast track route for researchers at the highest level, and many early career researchers and support technicians will require other visa routes. These changes do not go far enough to ensure that Scotland can retain and attract a pipeline of talented researchers.

A positive improvement on the new visa would be to expand the pool of research institutes, bodies and universities able to endorse candidates across all regions of the UK. Currently several endorsing bodies for what is a UK-wide visa have an England-only remit. 

Changes To Routes To Work In Scotland

A sponsored route for skilled workers

An employer-sponsored route for skilled workers should be one of the options available in the UK immigration system. It is familiar to many employers, and should serve as a way to allow businesses to make sure they can get the person they need, with the skills they need, when they need them.

However, the UK Government position in the immigration white paper that all work migration will be through a single route for highly skilled and skilled workers from all countries is not appropriate. There should be additional options alongside it to meet the needs of different employers and different migrants and their families. 

The Scottish Government agrees that there should be no cap on the numbers of skilled workers allowed to enter through this route, and the resident labour market test should no longer be required, as the MAC recommended. There is no need to wait until the new immigration system is implemented – the UK Government should immediately remove the annual cap of 20,700 sponsorship certificates, and the resident labour market test requirement, from the current Tier 2 route. 

The UK Government intends that there will be a salary threshold in this route, as in Tier 2 at present. The MAC recommended retaining the minimum salary threshold at £30,000, although they are undertaking a subsequent review on that question. A salary threshold could be an appropriate control measure in an employer-sponsored route for higher-earning skilled workers, if it is set at a point that reflects earnings at the skill level the route is open to and the situation in the wider labour market, and if additional options with different controls are available. A salary threshold of £30,000 is too high for this route.

The UK Government should retain a lower salary threshold for new entrants under the age of 26, currently set at £20,800. This should be set at an appropriate level relative to the main salary threshold, for example at the 10th percentile of the range of earnings in eligible roles. The rate at which it is expected new entrants’ earnings should increase in order to renew their visa and apply for settlement should be reviewed. The thresholds are currently set at £30,000 to renew after three years, and around £35,000 to apply for leave to remain after five years.

The main threshold in Tier 2 was previously set at the 25th percentile of the range of earnings in roles at the minimum skill level required for the route, currently graduate roles at RQF 6. The new Skilled Worker route is proposed to be open to RQF 3 level roles (equivalent to A-levels or Highers). The MAC found that the 25th percentile of the range of earnings in roles at RQF 3 was £20,100.

Some stakeholders have suggested a salary threshold set at a level that is a multiplier of National Minimum Wage. For example, a full-time salary that is 50% above National Minimum Wage is approximately £23,000.

Many organisations and stakeholders who have made a public statement of their views on the salary threshold to date, with or without an expressed methodology, have clustered in the range of £20,000 to £24,000, approximately. The Russell Group and Universities Scotland suggest £21,000, and the Welsh Centre for Public Policy (commissioned and endorsed by the Welsh Government) proposes £20,000.

One of the policy purposes of a salary threshold is to prevent downward pressure on salary levels through employers recruiting foreign workers at lower wages than the resident workforce would accept. However, this is a fundamental misconception of the way migration interacts with the labour market. 

The MAC found in their comprehensive analysis of the impact of EEA migration on the UK labour market that there is “overall no evidence that EEA migration has reduced wages for UK-born workers on average.” There is no selection mechanism in migration from the EU, and no salary threshold those workers have to meet – but nevertheless, EU migration has had, on average, no impact on wages for resident workers. That calls into question the purpose of a salary threshold intended to prevent wage undercutting through migration when the available evidence suggests that does not happen.

“the effect of low-skilled migration on low-skilled wages is zero.”

Professor Esther Duflo, 2019 Nobel prize winning economist

If the goal of the salary threshold is to address the perception of this problem and provide reassurance to resident workers that migration is not undercutting wages, linking the minimum threshold to National Minimum Wage or the National Living Wage could be an option to explore. This would automatically uprate as changes to minimum wage levels come into place.

Even with a salary threshold set below £30,000, the design of the Skilled Worker route may not be suitable for some key sectors. In many cases, developing additional options in the immigration system should allow employers to adapt to changes in migration rules, and access the skills and labour they require. There remains a risk that the social care sector, among others, may still be exposed to a particular challenge. The UK Government should work closely with the sector to understand the need for overseas workers in social care roles, and ensure the immigration system is able to help respond to demographic change and meet the needs of an ageing society.

The MAC observes that beyond London and parts of the South East, average salary levels across the rest of the UK are broadly similar: in fact, Scotland is one of the highest-salaried areas in the UK outwith London. They suggested that a higher threshold for London, with a single lower threshold for other parts of the UK, would be a possible approach to regional salary levels.

A “London weighting” in the salary threshold for this route could offer some benefit to Scotland; however, approaches that are designed to encourage and facilitate migration to Scotland are more likely to be successful and meet Scotland’s needs than approaches that are designed to discourage migration to other parts of the UK.

The Scottish Visa proposed in this paper would not have a salary threshold, and a true points-based immigration system should not have a salary threshold. In thinking about a Scottish Visa, and potentially also a UK points-based system, the Scottish Government is interested in exploring an approach that captures social value and contribution alongside economic value. Within the Skilled Worker route, the priority is a more appropriate salary threshold. However, a focus on salary and earnings above all else privileges certain elements of the economy and certain geographies, and additional options should be available in the immigration system that are more closely aligned to social value.

Alongside policy changes, the UK Government should deliver on simplifying bureaucracy and reducing costs. The Home Office aims to make the system as straightforward and light touch as possible, and low cost to employers, and that is a welcome ambition. 

A new route for European workers

As a transitional measure after leaving the EU and ending free movement, the UK Government has proposed a time-limited route for temporary workers. This will allow people to come for a maximum of 12 months, with a cooling-off period of a further 12 months. There is no sponsorship requirement, but it will not carry entitlements to access public funds or rights to extend a stay, switch to other routes, bring dependents or lead to permanent settlement. It will only be open to nationals of specified low risk countries, which have not yet been defined. The UK Government intends to review this route by 2025 and expects to close it at some point.

The temporary worker route was intended to prevent a ‘cliff-edge’ for employers who had previously relied on free movement. Although eligibility based on nationality has not been defined, it would be expected to include EEA countries who currently have free movement rights. However, the short term of stay and the cooling-off period preventing returns within 12 months mean that for many sectors, it is not an adequate replacement or transitional measure. It would potentially disincentivise investment in training of workers to improve productivity, and creates problems in sectors where continuity of employment is important, for example in social care.

The UK Government should consider revising this proposed route to better meet the needs of employers and migrants. Several stakeholders, including the CBI, have proposed extending the length of stay to 24 months. If this was combined with the ability to easily transfer onto other eligible visa routes while the migrant is in the UK, this could represent a useful option for workers from the EEA to come to the UK.

The UK should prioritise a close relationship with the EU after it leaves, including facilitated access for EU workers to the UK labour market, and British workers into the EU, even if the right to free movement is ended. The UK Government should learn from precedents in existing EU relationships with third countries through trade deals, association agreements and other undertakings. One model in an existing EU agreement, with Turkey, requires continued employment with a single employer for a specified duration before wider options open.

The revised temporary worker route could therefore represent a pathway in the UK immigration system to a reciprocally negotiated agreement on labour market access.

Some stakeholders have suggested a six-month temporary worker visa, with a six-month cooling-off period, could provide a helpful option for sectors which rely on a seasonal workforce. These include tourism and hospitality, food processing, forestry and other land-based industries, including edible horticulture which is currently the focus of a limited Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme. This is explored further in a proposal for a ‘Working Visitor’ visa later in this chapter.

Changes To Routes To Study In Scotland

International students

The UK Government should reduce the unnecessary administrative burdens on education institutions and international students introduced as part of the ‘hostile environment’ measures. Home Office figures show that the scale of the perceived abuse of the system by students overstaying their visa at the end of their studies is significantly smaller than previously suggested. The UK Government had stated that around one hundred thousand students had overstayed their visa, when in fact it was fewer than five thousand.[iv] The excessive compliance bureaucracy introduced to combat this should be rolled back, with more trust placed in established colleges and universities to recruit international students on the basis of academic ability.

English language skills are often essential for overseas nationals hoping to enter the UK and they have to meet different requirements depending on the type of visa for which they apply. As part of the overreaction of the ‘hostile environment’ a 2014 investigation into exam cheating resulted in an excessive remedy of tens of thousands of people’s visas being revoked, wrongly in many cases. 

While it is welcome that around 3,700 people accused of cheating on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) have won appeals in the First-tier Tribunal, 35,870 visas have been revoked and an estimated 11,400 people caught up in the scandal have subsequently left the UK.

The House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts has noted the detrimental impact on the lives of overseas students accused of cheating. The Committee highlighted that the design of the Tier 4 visa system left it open to large-scale abuse but that the UK Government rushed to penalise students without establishing whether it had reliable evidence of cheating and that it has not acted to put right these wrongs. 

Short-term study

Recent positive steps to improve entry to the UK at the border for visitors from certain countries through access to e-gates has inadvertently created a potential issue for students coming for short-term courses of study being issued with the wrong visa if they do not speak to a Border Force officer on arrival. Signage has been introduced to highlight the issue, but it will become more pronounced when students from EU countries are also subject to these rules. The UK Government should consider options to resolve this, including potentially removing the short-term study visa and permitting study on short courses under the standard visitor rules.

Case Study: European Temporary Leave to Remain 

If the UK was to leave the EU without a deal, it is expected that an interim ‘European Temporary Leave to Remain’ scheme would become available for EU citizens coming to the UK. They will be required to apply to stay in the UK for up to three years, after which they would have to switch on to an appropriate visa in the new immigration system.

The proposed three-year non-extendable time limit will have serious consequences for Scottish education institutions, putting them at a competitive disadvantage with regards to undergraduate recruitment. Scottish undergraduate degrees are typically four years, and many advanced degrees across the UK are longer than three years. 

Limiting Europeans to three years without any clarity on what system they will move onto, or how much it will cost, risks putting students and staff off thinking of coming to Scotland to study and work. Despite repeated urging from the Scottish Government and the sector, and acknowledgment of the problem by the UK Government, it has not been clarified how this disadvantage to Scottish universities will be resolved.

Post-study work visa

The UK Government has announced the reintroduction of a post-study work visa from the summer of 2021. This follows the recommendation of the Smith Commission that post study work visa should be reintroduced, as well as the findings of a working group representing universities, employers, civic society and all political parties in the Scottish Parliament. 

The work following Smith to develop that proposal brought in a wide range of stakeholders from education, business and civic society, and gained cross-party support and consensus in the Scottish Parliament. 

Post-study work has continued relevance because attracting and retaining highly-skilled workers is important for economic goals; and attracting and retaining young people is important for demographic goals. Graduates tend to be highly-skilled young people. There is a strong focus across the world in attracting international graduates and the post study work visa offer is seen as an important element of the wider package which employers, universities and research bodies use to attract graduates.

The new post-study work visa is a welcome step, but one that is long overdue. The UK Government should bring forward the planned introduction so that students in the UK due to graduate next summer can benefit.

Fresh Talent, and the post-study work visa that replaced it in 2008, was open to students who had gained an HND-level qualification, or higher, at a Scottish institution. The UK Government should reintroduce this allowance in the new route.

Changes To Routes To Visit Scotland

Welcoming visitors and enabling collaboration

Standard visitors can enter the UK and remain for up to six months, compared to around three months in most comparable countries. This relatively generous offer by international standards is skewed by an approach to risk management based on nationality that in practice can make it very difficult for citizens of certain countries to enter the UK. This is particularly pronounced in the Scottish context during the Edinburgh festivals, when artists, performers and participants from all over the globe want to come to Scotland.

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs is due to convene a Festivals Visa Summit to address these issues and has invited Ministers from the UK Government and Welsh Government, representatives of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and stakeholders in the cultural and creative sectors across Scotland and the UK

The permit-free festivals scheme benefits many festivals in Scotland and around the UK, by allowing performers to come to the UK on a visitor visa rather than a work visa. This scheme should be retained, but the annual reporting and application procedure should be reviewed and made more straightforward for established festivals.

The UK Government does not intend to require EU visitors to obtain a visitor visa in advance of travel once the UK has left the EU, in common with other low-risk countries. EU citizens should also still able to use e-gates to enter the UK after the UK leaves the EU, rather than speaking to a Border Force officer. 

In the case of nationals of countries who do require a visitor visa, where there is no review or appeal process for refusals, it is important that decision-making is accurate, fair and transparent.

Working visitors

The Permitted Paid Engagement (PPE) visa in the visitor rules allows limited paid engagements in certain categories on a visit of up to four weeks. For example, performers at festivals and cultural events that are not part of the permit-free festivals scheme must apply for a PPE visa if they are to be paid in the UK.

Feedback from stakeholders is that this visa route is helpful and necessary, but that in some cases four weeks is not long enough. The UK Government should consider extending the length of stay under this route to six months, in line with the standard visitor visa, as well as extending and clarifying the permitted activities under this route.

A six-month visa along these lines might also take in seasonal work in specific sectors, rather than devising multiple sector-specific schemes. The Home Office and Defra are currently running a small-scale pilot scheme for agricultural workers in the edible horticulture sector, of only 2,500 workers for the whole of the UK. This limited pilot has been a relative success according to feedback from stakeholders in Scotland, but questions remain about scalability to the level labour shortfalls in the sector demand in a model where workers require sponsorship from a labour services provider. There is also no concession to other sectors that rely on a seasonal workforce such as tourism and hospitality or food processing, or other land-based industries such as forestry. Schemes intended for lower-skilled or lower-waged employment which tie an individual’s immigration status to a particular employer potentially open the risk of exploitation. A system that allowed workers to change employer at will, as they can under free movement from Europe, putting more rights in their hands.

Case Study: Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme 

Productivity is key to the future success of the Scottish agri-food industry, a key growth sector of the Scottish economy. The Scottish food and drink sector and Scottish Government’s joint target to double the sector’s turnover to £30 billion by 2030 will not be reached if the sector cannot employ workers throughout the food chain.

The evidence gathered by NFU Scotland from members who employ both temporary and permanent workers from outside of the UK was that 50% of respondents have experienced problems in recruiting non-UK workers over the last three years. 

Many NFU Scotland members have tried repeatedly over a number of years to attract local or domestic workers but with little success. Key issues were the calibre and commitment of local recruits; local recruits did not tend to stay in the job or express willingness to undergo training to get up to speed with more experienced workers. According to a recent NFU Scotland survey, the majority of temporary workers fulfilling jobs in Scottish agri-food stayed between three and nine months in horticulture and potatoes sectors, as well as processing. 

Many horticultural and potatoes businesses reported that they recruit returning staff for a number of years who upskill within their roles into senior positions such as pack house managers, team leaders and harvesting supervisors. A significant number of non-UK temporary workers return to the UK year-on-year, having been trained within their posts and built a trusting relationship with their employer – therefore attracting higher wages to reflect role progression year-on-year. The EEA Worker visa proposal in this paper, with a longer 24-month initial entry period and options to switch onto other routes, would be better for workers like this, while a six-month temporary visa scheme may be appropriate for others.

Expanded Youth Mobility

The Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme of 2,500 places in 2019 is understood to have attracted mainly student workers. This is perhaps due to the conditions of the visa: workers can stay a maximum of six months, during which time they live on-site in communal accommodation provided by employers. Those with families or partners are not catered for. The route is therefore attractive as a working holiday for young single people wishing to come to the UK, for whom other routes would be closed. 

An expanded Youth Mobility route could also help alleviate shortages in some sectors, although it is not guaranteed that the available supply through a youth mobility route would match the demand in either quantity, skills or even interest from young people in certain industries. 

The UK Government has proposed extending a Youth Mobility scheme to European countries after leaving the EU, alongside current reciprocal schemes agreed with countries including Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. This would be a positive step, although a two-year working holiday visa does not match the possibilities available to young people under free movement as EU citizens.

The UK could learn from the Australian system of working holiday visas, where young people are eligible to extend their stay in Australia if they live in a particular region, such as a rural area, or work in a particular occupation. Therefore, the UK Government should work with the Scottish Government to develop a pilot scheme to allow individuals in the UK on the Tier 5 Youth Mobility visa to extend their stay for up to an additional year if they reside in Scotland during that time. This would be an early opportunity to test a residence requirement as a visa condition in a low-risk context.

The UK Government should also allow in-country switching from Tier 5 Youth Mobility into other visa categories, rather than requiring applicants to leave the UK in order to submit a new application. This could provide another route to help attract and retain talented young migrants. 

Changes To Routes To Invest In Scotland

Innovator and Start-Up routes

The UK Government should work with stakeholders to make improvements to the Innovator and Start-Up visa routes, which have had a poor reception since their introduction in April 2019, and if necessary reinstate the Entrepreneur and Graduate Entrepreneur routes they replaced until the new routes are appropriately amended.

The Innovator and Start-Up visa categories are intended for experienced entrepreneurs and new business start-ups, respectively, with innovative, scalable business ideas to benefit the UK economy. The new schemes were introduced, and the old routes closed to new applications, with little notice or consultation with relevant stakeholders. 

This has led to very limited take-up of the new routes, which need to be endorsed by a registered body in the UK such as a university or tech incubator. Of the two new routes the Start-Up visa has been more positively received, with 122 universities across the UK acting as endorsers for their students and recent alumni.

Comparatively there are currently only 35 organisations on the Innovator endorsing bodies list, the majority of which will generally only endorse applicants for their own programmes. This is in part to combat the administrative challenge of sifting low-quality speculative applications. 

This need to participate in a business accelerator programme limits the opportunities for international entrepreneurs to secure endorsement. Coupled with the added risk of being able to meet the extremely high bar for settlement and relinquishing equity in exchange for approval on the start-up route, these schemes have become undesirable to international innovators. 

There were only four Innovator visas issued in the new schemes’ first three months. In comparison, the visa it replaced had 1,160 visas issued in 2018. Scottish EDGE requested four tickets of the 25 available to endorsers as standard and have yet to issue any endorsements but are nearing completion on their first. Similarly Invest Northern Ireland had only issued three endorsements out of an allocation of 25 by the end of 2019. Other delivery partners also issued endorsements in lower volumes compared to the previous Entrepreneur and Graduate Entrepreneur routes. 

Tech Nation had previously announced that they would begin operating the Start-up and Innovator visa routes in September 2019. However they have decided it is necessary to delay endorsement of these routes in order to explore a new Tech Nation initiative that would enable them to support international entrepreneurs. They aim to begin endorsing applications by April 2020.

Some organisations were approached to act as endorsing bodies before the official guidance was made available and so they were not aware of the rigorous monitoring and compliance burden they would have to meet in order to maintain endorser status. Since the launch of the schemes the guidance has been updated to add additional conditions with which endorsing bodies will need to comply.

The operation of these routes centres around third party endorsement by industry experts, an idea which came from the 2015 MAC review of entrepreneur visas. Shifting the relationship and responsibility away from the Home Office and onto industry could open endorsing bodies up to legal action as the innovator’s immigration status and ability to remain in the UK is reliant upon the maintenance and extension of the endorsement. Equally if an endorsing body maintains or extends the endorsement despite the business not meeting the rigorous criteria, they are then non-compliant and risk being penalised and potentially having their endorser status revoked. 

In addition, the innovator receiving endorsement would not be required to be based in Scotland and consequently would not necessarily create jobs in Scotland or contribute to the Scottish tax base. There is also the added complexity around monitoring and compliance as to whether endorsers should be assessing businesses that are not based in their countries. It makes sense therefore that Scottish based endorsers would only expect to endorse innovators who are making a contribution to the Scottish economy or society.

Professor in school of life sciences, human rights activist
Pictured in Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh
Born in Jamaica

Photo of Geoff, Professor in school of life sciences, human rights activist, Pictured in Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Born in Jamaica



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