The UK has always relied on foreign talent to address skills gaps and labor shortages in its economy. A range of work visas provides a legal pathway for non-EU citizens to live and work in the UK.
However, concerns around growing immigration levels have led to recent policy changes aiming to restrict and control inbound migration. Successive Conservative governments have championed a “skills-based” system, making it tougher for foreign workers to obtain UK work visas.
Over the past year, the UK Home Office has implemented new rules and requirements for various work visa routes, particularly targeting student visas and the main Skilled Worker route. Salary thresholds have been raised, visa fees increased, application processes complicated and eligibility criteria tightened across the board.
The government states these measures are necessary to incentivize local hiring and reduce dependence on foreign labor. But employers reliant on international talent have found it increasingly difficult to secure and retain the overseas workers they need under the new regulations.
In this post, we’ll summarize the major changes to UK work visas in 2023 and what they mean for employers and visa applicants. Keep reading to ensure you understand the latest rules governing UK work authorization.
Student Visa Changes
The UK has made two significant revisions to the Student route that are now in effect:
- No dependents allowed except some post-grads from 2024
Previously, international students could bring dependent family members (spouses and children under 18) to the UK on their student visa. But from January 2024, this right is being revoked.
The only exception is for post-graduate students on certain advanced research-based degree courses like PhDs, who can still bring dependents after 2024.
Those with dependents already in the UK can extend their visas. But new students on regular undergraduate or master’s degrees will no longer be able to bring family after the rule takes effect next year.
- Can’t switch from student visa to work visa until course complete
Under the old policy, foreign students could apply to switch from a Student visa to a work visa like Skilled Worker up to 4 months before completing their course. This allowed securing post-study employment and sponsorship.
Now, international students are prohibited from switching to a work visa until after their course concludes. Exceptions remain for PhD students who can switch after 24 months of study.
This change intends to force graduates to return home after finishing their degree rather than transitioning to UK employment. Employers will need to align job start dates so students don’t begin working before course completion.
Skilled Worker Visa Updates
The Skilled Worker route has seen several changes, including:
- Salary thresholds increased
The minimum salary required for Skilled Worker sponsorship increased in April 2023. It is now £26,200 per year or £10.75 per hour for most roles. There are discounted rates for new entrants and shortage occupations.
Meeting the higher salary floor is now a mandatory requirement. Those earning below the threshold can no longer “trade” points for lower salaries.
- New shortage occupation roles added
Certain jobs in construction (bricklayers, carpenters) and fishing (deckhands) were added to the official Shortage Occupation List (SOL) in July 2023.
Roles on the SOL have lower salary and visa application requirements due to high demand. Adding occupations indicates the UK’s labor shortages.
- Calculation rules for irregular shift patterns
The Home Office provided explicit guidance for calculating appropriate salary levels when the job involves variable shift patterns. Average weekly hours and unpaid rest days must be factored in.
Ensuring salaries comply becomes more complex for irregular schedules. But using the new methodology will avoid compliance issues.
EU Settlement Scheme Changes
Two major changes were made affecting the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS):
- Automatic extension of pre-settled status
Previously, EUSS holders had to actively apply to switch from pre-settled to settled status when meeting residency requirements.
Now, pre-settled status is automatically extended for 2 years if the individual has not yet obtained settled status before expiry. This prevents loss of rights.
- Closure of Surinder Singh and Zambrano family routes
These little-known EUSS family routes allowed non-EU relatives of British citizens returning from the EU to obtain UK residence.
As of August 2023, no new applications can be made under these routes. Existing beneficiaries are unaffected. But an important pathway for family members has closed.
The changes intend to strictly limit ongoing immigration, even for those with residual EU rights. Understanding the evolving EUSS policies remains crucial.
Other Visa Adjustments
Beyond the major updates, other technical visa changes include:
- Expanding the Ukraine Extension Scheme to allow Ukrainian nationals to extend UK stay through May 2024.
- Adding 5 more countries to the visa national list requiring visitor visas – now over 100 countries fall under mandatory entry clearance.
- Allowing sponsored junior doctors 4 months after training ends to find long-term NHS roles before visas expire.
- Introducing 12-month UK work experience requirement for deckhands on fishing vessel shortage occupation roles.
- Tightening rules so illegal entrants can no longer obtain status under EUSS family permits.
While more minor in impact, these changes continue the policy direction of increased immigration control. The UK landscape is rapidly evolving – ongoing vigilance is key.
The UK has implemented sweeping restrictions across work visas in 2023. Major changes include slashing student dependents, preventing in-country visa switches, raising salary floors and cutting EU family routes.
While aimed at reducing immigrant inflows, these policies create new hurdles for employers dependent on foreign talent. Sponsoring international workers is now tougher and costlier. Hiring managers must factor the new rules into recruitment plans.
With the UK government resolute on achieving its “skills-based” immigration goals, further visa revisions are imminent. The regime is in a state of continual change. Staying abreast of the latest developments is crucial for compliant sponsorship.
Get in touch if you need personalized guidance navigating the new work visa regulations. We can help assess your options for hiring foreign nationals despite the restrictions.
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