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The new visa route for recognised or emerging leaders in architecture: what does this mean for the architectural sector?

13 December 2018

The Government has announced a new immigration category for overseas recognised or emerging leaders in architecture that has the potential to ease access to jobs in the UK. With Brexit looming on the horizon, this news will provide some much needed reassurance that the UK’s Architecture sector will still be able to attract the best global talent over the coming years. However the new measures are limited in their scope and are unlikely to plug the gap that will be left once freedom of movement for EU workers comes to an end.

What has been announced?

The Government intends that from 10 January 2019, the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa route will be widened to incorporate applicants from the field of architecture.

The Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa has been around for many years but has historically been underutilised. It is designed for highly skilled individuals from a variety of industry and arts sectors who the Government hope will enrich the UK’s knowledge economy and cultural life. From January 2019 this will now welcome architecture applicants.

The premise of this visa is that it is granted to an individual as their experience and skills reach the threshold of exceptional talent. This assessment is made by an independent body, separate to the Home Office, which in this case will be the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

What will an applicant have to show?

RIBA will have two sets of criteria for two levels of applicants: those who can demonstrate ‘exceptional talent’, for applicants who are already considered leaders in the field; and those who demonstrate ‘exceptional promise’, who are potentially earlier on in their careers but have shown potential to make significant contributions in the Architecture sector.

It will be up to RIBA to assess whether they meet this criteria and the expectation is that applicants will demonstrate the following:

  • That they are professionally engaged in producing work of outstanding quality which has been published, presented or exhibited internationally
  • Show recent experience of being engaged professionally as a practitioner in their field
  • Show a substantial track record in one or more country

An applicant will have to submit a portfolio of evidence to RIBA for assessment. This should include evidence of some of the following:

  • Significant international media recognition for their work
  • Proof of having within the last five years won or made a significant contribution to winning an international award in Architecture
  • Proof of having published or exhibited in the last five years in internationally significant contexts in the field of Architecture

For those applying under the ‘exceptional promise’ criteria, these requirements are diluted slightly in that evidence that they were only nominated or shortlisted for an international award will suffice.

If they are successful in being awarded the endorsement, the applicant can then proceed to make the visa application. The visa will be granted for a period up to five years and allows an applicant to stay long term and eventually apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR).

What does this mean for Architecture practices in the UK?

The major advantage of this visa is that it allows the holder a lot of flexibility in that they have free access to work for whomever they choose. They can be employed or self-employed though they will need to work within the Architecture sector to apply for an extension or ILR. This offers them the potential to move employers while in the UK and take on projects to suit them.

For employers this offers the opportunity to employ foreign national architecture applicants without having to negotiate the complex modern day work permit scheme known as Tier 2 of the points based system. This requires a business to have a government approved sponsor licence, to pay a £1,000 per year levy known as the 'immigration skills charge' to employ a foreign worker and then adhere to a series of record keeping and reporting duties whilst a Tier 2 visa holder works for them. If the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa allows employers to avoid the added costs and administrative burdens of Tier 2 then this is to be welcomed.

The pool of candidates who will be able to apply for the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa route is likely, though, to be small. The requirement to have attained international recognition in the form of awards and other accolades means that there will only be a niche minority of Architecture applicants who will attain this threshold. It remains to be seen how strictly RIBA interprets the rules when assessing applications, but the number of overseas practitioners who will be able to benefit from it is likely to be in the hundreds. This means that employers will still need to resort to using the Tier 2 category when looking to employ global talent.

This change is some good news for the Architecture sector and represents acknowledgement at Government level that it needs to be bolstered and protected from the Brexit related challenges that lie ahead. But this is only a drop in the ocean and will not revolutionise how foreign architecture candidates can be recruited in the future. The Tier 1 Exceptional Talent route is designed for a select elite not the large numbers of skilled foreign workers that the industry needs and will inevitably dwindle following Brexit.

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