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Expert insight: Routes to consider for pharmaceutical businesses attracting talent from overseas

By: Talitha Degwa – Employment Law Senior Associate at VWV

UK immigration reforms

In December 2020 changes were made to the UK’s Immigration Rules, introducing the Government’s new, post-Brexit, points-based system. The most significant of these changes was the introduction of the new Skilled Worker route, replacing the Tier 2 (General) category. Since then, we have continued to see further reforms to the immigration system, including the introduction of more new categories with more to be launched in 2022. The Government’s aim is to use the immigration system to “attract the brightest and best talent to the UK”.

The pharmaceuticals and life sciences sector is one of many sectors that can benefit both from the existing immigration and some of the new immigration categories which will come into force over the coming months. The following routes are amongst those which pharmaceutical businesses may wish to consider when looking to attract and retain talent from overseas.

Skilled Worker Route

The Skilled Worker route is the main immigration category for workers with a job offer to come to the UK. Employers who wish to sponsor the visa applications of foreign nationals to come to the UK to carry out a specific skilled job for that business must hold a sponsor licence and agree to comply with various sponsor duties. Workers sponsored under this route can be employed for up to five years, at the end of which they may qualify for indefinite leave to remain. The visa allows applicants to bring dependents, so Pharma businesses could utilise this route as a means of retaining migrant workers who would want to relocate to the UK with their families on a permanent basis.

As mentioned above, the Skilled Worker route replaced the Tier 2 (General) category, one of the main differences between the two being that the Skilled Worker category allows employers to sponsor workers at a lower skill level than previously. Eligible jobs are set out in the Immigration Rules and while there were plenty of roles that pharma businesses might have been able to sponsor workers to take under the Tier 2 (General) rules (including production managers, chemical scientists and pharmacists), there are a number of occupation codes which are included under the new rules which mean that pharma businesses could sponsor migrant workers to fill a far greater number of roles (including pharmaceutical technicians, laboratory technicians and quality assurance technicians).

The Graduate and High Potential Individual routes

The Graduate route was introduced in July 2021 and allows student visa holders who complete their bachelor’s degree, postgraduate degree or other eligible course in the UK to remain in the UK for a period of two (or in some cases, three) years with permission to work in any role.

In a very similar vein, the High Potential Individual route, which will come into force on 30 May 2022, will allow graduates from highly regarded overseas universities to come to the UK to work in any role without the need for formal sponsorship. Applicants under this category must hold a degree or higher, which they were awarded in the last five years, by a non-UK university which features in the top 50 rankings of at least two of the following university ranking systems: Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings and The Academic Ranking of World Universities.

Applicants whose degrees are equivalent to a UK bachelor’s or master’s degree will be eligible for a two-year visa; applicants whose qualifications are equivalent to a UK PhD will be eligible for a three-year visa.

Neither the Graduate nor the High Potential Individual routes lead to indefinite leave to remain but both act as a ‘stepping stone’ into the UK workforce. Pharma businesses may therefore look to hire graduates from UK and top international universities on a temporary basis, with a view to sponsoring them under the Skilled Worker category – assuming they meet the relevant requirements – should they wish to retain them on a permanent basis.

Global Talent

The Global Talent route is for recognised or emerging leaders in the fields of science and medicine, engineering, humanities, digital technology or arts and culture. In most cases applicants will need to be endorsed by the relevant endorsing body (the Royal Society for chemists, biochemists and chemical engineers) before applying for a visa. The route is primarily aimed at those individuals who have established themselves in their chosen field but may be of interest to Pharma and Life Science businesses looking to recruit senior scientific talent from overseas.

Other categories and forthcoming changes

The Scale-up route is to be introduced in August 2022 and allows scale-up companies (defined as companies with an annualised growth of at least 20% for the previous 3-year period in terms of turnover or staffing and a minimum of 10 employees at the start of the 3-year period) to sponsor overseas workers coming to fill higher skilled roles on more favourable terms than under the Skilled Worker route. Some Pharma and Life Sciences businesses might meet the definition of ‘scale-up’ and so wish to consider sponsoring workers under this route.

The Global Mobility routes are for international businesses looking to transfer workers into the UK. They come into force in April 2022 and replace the existing Intra-Company routes and Sole Representative visa. None of these categories lead to indefinite leave to remain, but it will be possible to switch out of those categories into, for example, the Skilled Worker route. These categories may be of interest to Pharma and Life Science businesses which do not already have a trading presence in the UK or are part of an international group of companies and wish to transfer workers into the UK from related companies overseas relatively easily.

In addition to those employer-sponsored routes, it is always worth considering whether a prospective employee from overseas might qualify under another route on the basis of their personal relationships or background. A good example of this is the Hong Kong British National (Overseas) category, which is for Hong Kong residents who hold British National (Overseas) citizenship and their family members. Successful applicants under this route will be issued a visa that allows them to move to the UK to work and study without the need for a sponsor.

Other examples include the UK Ancestry category (for Commonwealth citizens with a UK-born grandparent), visas for spouses, fiancé(e)s and unmarried partners of British citizens and people with indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and the Youth Mobility Scheme (for young people from certain countries who want to come to the UK for up to two years).

Find out more

For more details on how changes to the immigration system will affect your business, please contact Talitha Degwa in the VWV Immigration team on 07384813082.


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