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Visa refusals – the figures, the problem and the solution

16 May 2018

Following an FOI by CaSE, the Home Office have released the numbers of skilled worker visas refused due to the Tier 2 cap. Here’s a look at the figures, the problem and the solution.

Since the introduction of the cap on visas for skilled workers in 2011, CaSE has argued that it is not good policy and needs to be changed. The effect of the cap on the NHS has been headline news, but until now, the scale of the issue right across sectors of our economy wasn’t public. We are now able to see the full effect of the cap in action.

The problem

Following a lengthy process, which began by proposing Parliamentary Questions to ask for the information, resorting to an FOI when answers were not satisfactory, we can now reveal that between December 2017 and March 2018, 6,080 eligible applications for a Tier 2 (General) Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) were refused due to the Government’s annual cap placed on this visa route. Of the 6,080 total refusals, 3,500 were for engineering, IT, technology, STEM teaching and medical roles, with professional services making up the bulk of the rest. A full digest of the figures is below.

The Home Office have commented that “it is important that our immigration system works in the national interest, ensuring that employers look first to the UK resident labour market before recruiting from overseas”. Employers already do. To be eligible for a Tier 2 visa companies must have done a resident labour market test to prove there was no one suitable for the role in the domestic talent pool. And there is economic and anecdotal evidence that employers only engage with the tier 2 system if they need to – it is costly and cumbersome so certainly not done in preference to UK talent. And regarding the national interest – the figures set out below clearly show the tier 2 cap is not a policy that works in the national interest. Infrastructure projects stalling without engineers. Delays to genomics research without tech specialists. Schools without teachers. And patients without doctors.

The UK’s productivity, public services and reputation are all taking a hit just at a time when we can least afford it. As Sarah said in our press release, it leaves employers frustrated and the public poorly served. It is a costly policy choice. But the good news is it can be swiftly resolved.

The 6,080 refusals, however damaging, are not a mistake. It is the logical conclusion of this policy. If the demand from employers for hiring skilled individuals from outside the EEA exceeds the number the cap allows in any given month, employers will be left with unfilled vacancies as they have already gone through a recruitment process and found no suitable candidates domestically. The cap, it seems to me, was designed as a communications tool. It was an announcement in 2011 that enabled the government to say ‘we’ve got immigration under control and are limiting numbers coming to the UK’. At the time limiting the number of skilled workers was the only lever available to the Government. There wasn’t an ‘unskilled visa’ route that could be clamped down on. But public polling, regardless of political leaning, repeatedly shows the public concerns about migration are not with skilled workers with job offers from trusted companies.

The solution

Since 2011 a lot has changed. The Government is negotiating to leave the EU and are exploring what any new migration system in the public interest will look like. Amending the cap as we propose by exempting shortage and PhD level roles to give more headroom for other roles would be a good immediate solution to end this current crisis. It could be swiftly done in the upcoming visa rule change. With a long-term view of removing the cap all together.

This needn’t be a government u-turn. And opposition parties shouldn’t see it as such. Rather it is an opportunity for the Government to get its immigration policy aligned with its ambitions in the Industrial Strategy and warm words about Global Britain post-Brexit.

The figures

We have analysed the data we asked for, which breaks down the number of CoS refusals by Standard Occupation Classification (SOC) code by month between December 2017 and March 2018. 

Scientists & Engineers6898117129412
Medical practitioners2663753904871518
Other medical professions6382108109362
Professional services3643865035621815
All other professions89128152181550

We have grouped together individuals in to the broad categories in which they align. For example, ‘Science and Engineering roles’ groups Civil Engineers, Mechanical Engineers, Electrical & Electronics Engineers, Design Engineers, Production Engineers, Conservation & Environment professionals and Science/Engineering roles not elsewhere classified. As employers can apply for a CoS for the same individual in the same role the following month, the number of 6,080 is likely to include some repeat applications.

These figures mean that 412 applications to recruit engineers and a handful of scientists were refused because of the arbitrary cap. Not only is this expensive for organisations during their recruitment process, it also means that roles go unfilled and productivity is lost. With a reported shortage of 20,000 engineers every year in the UK, there can be no excuse in refusing highly-skilled engineers. The UK desperately needs engineers to develop infrastructure, improve processes and apply basic research to help to grow the UK economy.

Many of these refused applications were for individuals who would perform key roles within the public sector. Over 1500 doctors and almost 200 teachers across primary and secondary were refused. The highest number of visa refusals was for Speciality registrars with just short of 1,000 (976) refusals. The UK has even turned away a handful of science and maths teachers, positions that have been notoriously difficult to fill. This does not only represent nine unfilled STEM teaching roles, but hundreds of hours of teaching time each week lost for children or covered at unnecessary expense for schools.

The digital technology sector is one of the fastest growing in the UK which has attracted investment and talent from across the world. Due to the Tier 2 (General) cap being reached, over 1,200 IT professionals were refused entry to the UK to take up jobs that they were qualified to do.

Science, technology and medicine are not the only sectors that have been affected by the Tier 2 (General) cap. The professional service sector, including director-level roles, saw the refusal of over 1,800 Tier 2 (General) CoS applications between December and March.

Our data request also allows us to assess the number of refusals of CoS allocations compared with the number of accepted applications. Within the Tier 2 (General) cap, roles that are on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) and roles that require the individual to have a PhD are given preference, meaning that all other roles are left to take up remaining places. But in the latest month that data is available nearly 60% of total eligible applications were refused. This is a major problem, but a win-win solution is there if the Government are willing to take it. 

Refusals %36%47%49%59%


In 2015 the cap was reached and the Home Office provided the refusal figures by standard occupational code when requested in response to a Parliamentary Question. Since December 2017 similar questions have been tabled but the figures have not been provided. 

In our press release, Sarah said:

“It is concerning that the Government have seemed reluctant to release this data, when they did so promptly in 2015. Transparency and accountability with the public and with Parliament is critical to inform the debate on migration and future policy decisions.”

To practice what we preach, we’re publishing the full set of data we received in response to the FOI detailing refusals by SOC code by month. And hopefully it is in a format you can view, copy and use easily whether you’re a researcher, member of the public, Parliamentarian, Government official, member of the press or any one else. Transparency is essential for accountability to the public and to parliament. And to have any hope of informed debate (in public or in Parliament) and informed policies we need equal access to this kind of information. 

Further coverage

CaSE press release – including comment from MPs across parties and engineering and tech organisations

See CaSE in the Media – including articles in BBC, Evening Standard, Financial Times and coverage on BBC’s Today Programme, LBC and Talk Radio