In the government’s latest efforts to achieve the prime minister’s ambition for the UK to become a “science and technology superpower”, it has recently (May, 2023) unveiled two investments into the tech sector – £1bn into the UK’s semiconductor industry and £650m into the life sciences sector.

While much of the focus is on investment to make the UK a more attractive place for technology businesses, a world-class workforce is fundamental and healthy immigration is a key ingredient.

Our analysis of a freedom of information request to UK Visas and Immigration shows nearly 54,000 international workers came to work in the UK’s technology sector in 2022. This is up from 40,000 in 2021 – the largest year-on-year increase in the last five years. Yet despite the increase, inbound immigration currently accounts for just 1% of the five million people employed in the UK’s technology sector. More needs to be done to attract a strong balance of skilled workers from overseas, and from a wide and diverse global pool of tech workers.

Skilled migration has many benefits: it enhances the dynamics of a wider ecosystem, plugs the existing skills gap, and brings in diverse ideas and innovation – this is particularly important in a sector that is renowned for pushing the boundaries and being creatively and entrepreneurially disruptive. Workers in the technology sector also tend to be remunerated well, so healthy immigration should benefit the overall economy through spending and taxes.

The UK needs more migrants for its tech sector to become world class.

The small number of migrant workers will significantly decrease the odds of having a meaningful impact across the UK’s technology ecosystem. It also suggests the government’s ambition is currently out of reach, and more importantly, there’s a real risk that the tech businesses of the future will be developed outside of the UK.

So, what needs to be done? Firstly, a clearer, more supportive government policy to stimulate growth in UK technology companies is essential. This is especially true for emergent technologies that have the power to change the global digital economy, such as AI. Business communities that are cultivating ideas at an early stage need access to finance and to be supported. Recent developments in AI show how prevalent it’s going to be in our lives, with the industry’s market size forecasted to potentially reach $185tn by 2030. The UK is well positioned – a recent government report highlighted there are 3,170 UK AI companies, recruiting over 50,000 people and attracting £18.8bn of investment. So, there may be an opportunity to take a position on the global platform in this area. To do this, the necessary talent needs to be in place.

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In addition, the visa process needs to be as streamlined and efficient as possible. Bureaucracy should not create a barrier for attracting global tech talent. The existing Global Talent visa currently plays a key role in getting leading talent into the UK’s workforce, but clarity is needed on how it will be administered in the future. With new figures showing net migration reached a record high last year, and immigration continuing to be a key area for the government, it is crucial that the importance of healthy, skilled tech migration is not lost in the broader narrative.