The New “High Potential Individual” Visa in the UK Receives Criticism

Starting on May 30, recent graduates of top global universities are allowed to stay in the United Kingdom for a maximum of three years, with a new scheme called a High Potential Individual (HPI) visa. The applicants must have graduated from an eligible university within five years, and once accepted, college graduates will be allowed to stay for two years at most or three years for Ph.D. or other doctoral degrees.

The government only briefly describes on their website what the new visa holders can and cannot do, and yet, the short list seems to be enough to attract applicants for the new program. With an HPI visa, foreign nationals can “work in most jobs, look for work, be self-employed, live in the UK with partner and children [they must meet another eligibility criteria], do voluntary work, [and] travel abroad and return to the UK.”

In the meantime, they will not be able to apply for the most of public funds, or the State Pension, work as a professional athlete, extend the HPI visa, or apply to settle permanently in the UK. The government says that the accepted applicants will be provided with a full, extensive list of what they can and cannot do during their stay in the UK with the new visa.

The new program has also attracted numerous criticisms for being meritocratic and discriminatory. Of the total of 37 eligible institutions for the most recent graduates, 20 are from the United States alone, or 23 from North America. However, there are no universities from South America, the Middle East, or Africa. As the program focuses primarily — and seemingly exclusively — on the name of a school graduated for eligibility, even highly talented people like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella or Google CEO Sundar Pichai would not qualify for the HPI if they had applied only with their undergraduate degree in India.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, received his undergraduate degree from Manipal Institute of Technology in Karnataka
, India. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, went to the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur in West Bengal
, India for his alma mater. None of the above schools are listed under the eligible universities for the High Potential Individual visa. Photo: Manipal Institute of Technology

Furthermore, the program does not take GPA into account, meaning that someone who barely managed to graduate from an eligible institution would be qualified while an honor graduate from Brown University or Dartmouth College would not. With such ironies and an apparent lack of understandable rationale in choosing which universities qualify for the HPI, some people are raising their eyebrows about the purpose and effectiveness of the program.

There are similar policies in the US to attract talents into the country. For instance, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill that will lift numerical limits on immigrant visas for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Ph.D. graduates, possibly providing a direct pathway to permanent residency. However, no policy in the US principally considers the name of a graduated university, rather than a major or academic achievement.

Although there is no other major destination country for international students with a similar policy to HPI, the UK government seems satisfied and confident with its new program. UK chancellor Rishi Sunak said, “This new visa offer means that the UK can continue to attract the best and brightest from across the globe.” Home Secretary Priti Patel also added, “I am proud to be launching this new and exciting route as part of our points-based immigration system which puts ability and talent first – not where someone comes from.”

In a response to the officials’ remarks, a critic wrote in her opinion piece, “Sadly, this is far from the truth. Why else would the best and the brightest, ability and talent, not include graduates from the IITs and IIMs? The University of São Paolo?” She also argued that “the British government is not interested in the best and the brightest across the globe, but in those with access to elite, First World education.”

The University of Cape Town is ranked as the best university in the African continent by U.S. News. Yet, its graduates are not eligible to apply for the High Potential Individual visa in the UK. Photo: Adrian Frith / Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Christopher Trisos, a senior researcher at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town, also expressed his deep dissatisfaction with the new visa program in his comment to the BBC, describing it as “a deeply inequitable approach.” He said, “They [the UK] need to be recognizing and including diverse skills and in-depth knowledge held by many graduates from universities in developing countries” to together address imminent global issues such as climate change, energy access, and pandemics.

In addition to graduating from an eligible institution, there are a few other basic requirements that must be met by the applicants. Most predictably, applicants will need to pass a security and criminality check and prove their English proficiency with at least a “B1 level” which indicates that they can communicate with native speakers without much effort.

Those who are applying from outside the UK will be able to get their visa results within three weeks of submission if successful, or eight weeks for those who are switching their visa to HPI while staying in the UK.


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