After mounting pressure, the government has announced plans to exempt doctors and nurses from a cap on the number of visas for skilled workers who can be sponsored to come to the UK from outside the European Union. While this caused relief among some employers, particularly in the NHS, new analysis by the Migration Observatory shows that there is no guarantee that the exemption will prevent skilled visa requests being refused in future.
The cap for Tier 2 (General) visas has been on the books for years, but it has only recently become a major political issue. There is an annual limit of 20,700 on certificates of sponsorship (CoS) – the document that an employer must obtain to recruit a non-EU worker. However, this hasn’t made any practical difference because the number of applications by employers has consistently fallen short of the 20,700 level – until the year 2017-18.
As we reported in March, demand for CoS began to outstrip supply from December 2017 onwards. At this point, employers started to be refused requests to recruit non-EU citizens in skilled roles that were not PhD level jobs and not on the shortage occupation list. Because applications outside these two groups are prioritised largely on the basis of the proposed salary, this meant that the effective salary required for most applicants rose from a minimum of £30,000 to an amount that fluctuated month-to-month between £50,000 and £60,000.
The resulting refusals caused some controversy. Freedom of Information (FoI) data obtained by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) suggested that increasing numbers of CoS applications were being refused each month, from 1,093 in December 2017 to 1,956 in March 2018. About a quarter of refusals were doctors and a further 6% were other health professionals such as pharmacists, leading to calls to exempt the NHS from the cap.
Nurses were placed on the shortage occupation list in 2015 and so get priority over others. They are not affected by the changing salary requirements, nor the new exemption.
Who gets a visa
Health professionals have played an important part in growing demand for Tier 2 visas in the past two fiscal years (which start in April) – but this is not the only factor. The graph below combines CaSE FOI data on refusals with FOI data we requested on grants of CoS over the past two fiscal years, which gives an indication of overall demand from employers. Note that this double counts applicants who were refused in or after December 2017 and reapplied in subsequent months.
Total applications – both grants and refusals – for health professionals sharply increased by approximately 3,600 between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 fiscal years, equivalent to half of the total increase in applications between the two years. Growth in applications for science, research, engineering and technology professional roles accounted for most of the rest of the total increase, driven primarily by applications from scientists and IT professionals.
One effect of this increase in demand is that doctors and nurses have taken up a growing share of the Tier 2 certificates actually granted. Their share of CoS granted rose from 27% to 35% over the two-year period that we examined.
This increase is not just a short-term trend. Separate data from the Home Office show that overall Tier 2 visa applications in the “health and social work” sector has more than tripled from a low of 1,572 in 2011 to 6,563 in 2017.
Implications of exempting doctors and nurses
As a result of the exemption announced in June, doctors applying for a Tier 2 visa will not have to compete with other skilled workers for the limited number of CoS available each year. They will only face the baseline salary threshold of £30,000, or the minimum required for their role – which is higher in most cases, depending on the contract type and seniority. Nurses were already exempt from this salary threshold as a shortage occupation.
The exemption will affect all Tier 2 occupations, not just doctors and nurses, because it “frees up” space for applicants in other occupations that are not currently given any special priority, such as IT. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, 8,115 capped CoS were granted to doctors and nurses. This means that if the exemption had applied throughout the 2017-18 fiscal year, just over 8,000 extra places would have been available for people who are not doctors or nurses. There were 6,080 refusals during the same period that ended with the March 2018 allocation, including double-counted applicants who applied more than once. This means that at least for that fiscal year (April 2017 to March 2018), exempting doctors and nurses would have been sufficient to prevent the cap from being hit in any month.
But the exemption of doctors and nurses does not necessarily mean that the cap won’t be hit again in the current 2018-19 fiscal year. There is already a pool of refused applicants who may reapply in the hopes that the salary threshold will go down. Detailed data for the current fiscal year are not yet available, but the figure below shows how grants and refusals evolved in the 2017-18 fiscal year. By March 2018, the number of refusals for occupations other than doctors or nurses (1,469) exceeded the number of doctor and nurse grants (186 + 442 = 628). This indicates that if the exemption had been in place in that month only, the cap would still have been hit.
It depends on demand
The overall impact of the exemption on the number of workers recruited to other occupations remains uncertain, as it depends on whether the number of applicants in those occupations remains persistently high enough to use all of the places that will be freed up.
Because doctors and nurses have made up a significant share of Tier 2 visas, exempting them from the cap could turn out to have a significant impact by making several thousand places available for those in other occupations over the course of a year. This may reduce the effective salary requirement – bringing it closer to the £30,000 baseline amount that has consistently operated in “normal” times.
But what happens next will depend on future demand for Tier 2 visas. A key question is whether the rise in applications from December 2017 will persist. If high demand for CoS in 2018 has been fuelled largely by repeated re-applications by the same employers following refusals in the previous month, we might expect the pool of refused applicants to be gradually reduced as more spaces are made available.
Yet, if demand for Tier 2 visas is substantively higher due to factors such as lower net migration of EU citizens encouraging employers to look outside the EU for new recruits – something that is plausible but difficult to confirm empirically – it could be expected that application levels will remain high. If that is the case, the controversy related to the cap is probably not over.