UK architecture relies on talented young part Is and IIs but the new immigration system will exclude them, warns Mark Middleton


Mark Middleton

In early December, the RIBA and the Home office announced that a new bespoke category of visa for “exceptional talent” in architecture would be available from January 10, 2019. I for one greeted this with a yawn and a thought the architectural powers that be are answering the wrong question.

These new visas would be for “outstandingly talented” individuals and would involve both the RIBA and Arts Council England assessing and endorsing applications with the Home Office. This has typically been open to entrepreneurs and investors, basically people with wads of cash to invest in UK PLC, but will now be available to “exceptionalness”. I wonder how this will be defined, as it will need to be demonstrable. If this refers to completed works, it will be more difficult for the talented emerging architects we need to come here and join existing practices. This may help to keep London as one of the centres of architectural excellence post-Brexit, but it won’t help those who have kept it as a leading light for so long.

The current system of Tier 1 and Tier 2 visas is inadequate and remains an impenetrable and expensive mess. The fact that we were EU members with access to a visa-free architectural workforce was the only reason why we didn’t scream and shout about it before. You would think that my practice Grimshaw, with its global footprint of eight offices, would have used the system often and know all the buttons to press: the reality is we don’t touch new Tier 2 visa applications at all, although we have transferred a few Tier 4 student visas to Tier 2 which is a simple process in comparison.

A new Tier 2 visa is not attractive for several reasons. It’s a long and drawn-out process. There are also salary thresholds which were reduced from around £55k to £40k but these rule out all students and newly qualified architects. With these limits, architects have a very low success rate, less than 5% according to YouGov. These rates were marginally higher for civil engineers at 18% and project managers at 27%, but with such a low application rate this shows that Tier 2 is about as viable a route as Tier 1, however this is the system we have until 2021.

The fact we were EU members with access to a visa-free architectural workforce was the only reason we didn’t scream and shout about it before

We therefore have an inadequate system and with Brexit around 100 days away what are we going to do? The answer was revealed on December 19 in a government white paper describing our new immigration system after the EU transition period from 2021.

The assumption is that the tiers will be abolished for this new system as advised by the Migration Advisory Committee. In an intriguing move, the new system is based around skills rather than the applicant’s country of origin. Mr Javid, our Home Secretary, said: “It will be a single, skills-based immigration system built around the talent and expertise people can bring, rather than where they come from – maximising the benefits of immigration and demonstrating the UK is open for business.”

The positive slant on this is that the new system has scrapped Tier 2; every country will be treated equally and any caps on professional entries for doctors, engineers and presumably architects will be lifted. There is a proposed salary cap on visa applications of £30,000, but this is beyond what either part I or part II students are earning and is above the London Living Wage which is currently £20,155, so students would be excluded and would remain a problem. They would have to rely on an application for a one-year visa for low-skilled workers unless there remains a chance to change student visas into working ones.

>> Also read: Home Office announces ‘exceptional talent’ visas for architects

>> Also read: RIBA: Immigration white paper ‘a disaster’ for architecture

>> Also read: 95% of visa applications by non-EU architects rejected


How this system would be administered remains open to speculation. Time is always of the essence when it comes to recruitment. It would seem sensible to break the assessments into various sectors.

While most of the government’s Brexit moves remind me of a drunken man careering towards a window to leave the party rather than the front door, this one seems sensible. The devil is always in the detail but this seems workable for qualified architects. I like the removal of the Tier 2 visa which is totally unworkable. As long as these new applications are administered quickly with no enforced cap, in theory the world of recruiting skilled architects is open to us, as long as the UK remains attractive.

The problems are for students seeking experience and professional qualifications. With our architecture and education so intrinsically linked and with the advent of more student apprenticeships, more thinking needs to go into it. Perhaps the newly forged links between the Home Office and the RIBA can be used to clarify this.