Save London: Dumb Visas

Helen Kearney

Stay in London: The problem

The status of London as a leading city for design, art, and creative talent is under significant threat.  Partly, this is due to rising rents and the impossibility of living here for many – but this impossibility is not just based on financial considerations; there is now also an institutional, bureaucratised reason too.  The UK has recently tightened up its Visa regulations, to make it harder to live and work in the country if you are from outside the EU – especially if you do not have much money.  Low-earning professionals – among whom are designers, artists, musicians, are not able to stay in this country to work.  This is largely the result of two particular changes to visa regulations: the closure of the previous “skilled worker” category, and the new restrictions on students who are now not able to remain in the UK after finishing their degrees.  Now, after finishing degrees in the UK, students from outside the EU cannot stay unless they fulfil new criteria: earning a certain amount and being sponsored by a government-approved sponsor, or being classed as an ‘entrepreneur’, for example.  This obviously has a much wider impact that just the arts – the NHS, for example, has registered concern about training doctors and nurses that are needed in the UK, only to be told that they cannot stay in the UK to work once they have qualified.

What is VALUE(D)?

The political decisions that have resulted in these visa changes are based on some fundamental assumptions; the most significant of which being – what it is that we, as a nation, value about the people who live here.  The shift that has occurred in our visa regulations makes the clear statement that what we value is now based purely on money.  The terms used in the visa systems include “skilled” to describe workers, but reading the fine print reveals what is meant by this is not actually “skilled, but rather “high earning” or “with access to large sums of wealth”.  There has been a significant shift towards understanding people and their skills in purely monetary terms.

And the monetary ‘value’ is to be realised in a direct and short-term manner.  Quick injections of cash now, with no thought to either a) any potential long term gain from any investment that may be realised in the future, or b) non-financial value or gains.  Thus we have a situation in which universities are recruiting furiously for non-EU students, because with government funding cuts for Higher Education, this is the quickest and surest way to plug the funding gap – non-EU students often pay around 2.5 times what UK/EU students pay.  So Americans (say) are welcomed to London to study at art school or a conservatoire, bringing their £20,000 p.a. fees directly to the institution.  The UK trains them to a high level, and in many cases the students love living in London, and start to establish networks here, getting jobs, working hard on developing their craft, and making close friends and professional connections.  Then, once we have educated them, and they have developed roots in London, they are kicked out.  After all, once they have graduated there is no easy £20k p.a. coming in, and as arts grads they probably are not going to earn very much at all, for the first few years at least.  Forget the fact that they would be paying rents, buying goods, paying taxes.  So because the obvious immediate effect to somebody’s bottom line is no longer there, our government sees no reason for keeping these people around.  After educating people to a high level of skill, the UK doesn’t get to enjoy any of the benefits of these people with high levels of skills.  In some utterly stupid, stupid policy, we take time, university places, money, effort, to educate people who are going to be kicked out before we can see the rewards of our own work.  We get the benefit of these amazing peoples’ presence only as long as they pay us in cash.  The more you think through the logic the more you see it isn’t just stupid, it is utterly gross – valuing not skill, or creative work, or the good a person can do, or simply the person themselves, but just valuing money, and nothing else.

The Opportunity

Within this national problem, London has a particular place because of the number of art colleges, music schools and so on that it houses.  And because of the proportion of professional institutions that it houses too – concert halls and art centres and galleries and museums, but also smaller-scale, graduate/ emerging artist level too – indie, young galleries, studio spaces, poorly paid players’ jobs.  The scene in London is immense, on a scale nowhere near replicated in any other place in the country.  And the presence of all this young talent feeds upwards, in to the world-renowned cultural activity that London has in spades as well.  And London is fun, and interesting, and cool.  It’s somewhere that a lot of non-EU grads, or other artists, after completing their courses, really want to stay.  They would love to stay here, work here, and contribute to the life of the city, here, for years to come.  Therefore London has an amazing opportunity: it can attract some of the most interesting, skilled, creative people in the world – except they aren’t allowed to stay.  The city is now no longer able to hold onto the talent that it attracts.  It’s an incredible opportunity that, currently, is utterly lost to us, entirely due to our own stupidity.

DUMB VISAs: the detail

The current visa regulations state that a non-EU citizen can apply for a visa to stay and work in the UK if they can fulfil the requirements for any of the following categories:

  • Entrepreneur: having access to £50,000 or more of your own money for investment funds to spend on UK businesses; or access to £200,000 of someone else’s cash as an investment fund
  • Exceptional talent: having official endorsement – and proof – that you are deemed to be a leader in your field
  • General (including “highly skilled migrant”): once a key route for artistic and design professionals, this is now closed to new applicants.
  • Graduate entrepreneur: a graduate with a UK visa, and with an officially endorsed business idea and organisational sponsorship.  Limited to 2000 places p.a.
  • Investor: you need at least £1m for investing in the UK, and if you invest £5m or more you can settle after 3 years; £10m or more and you can settle after 2 years.
  • General (with job offer): you must have a “skilled” job offer in the UK, and sponsorship from your company, which in turn must be a licensed sponsor.  The job must have an “appropriate salary” of £20,500 or more.  You can also come if your current company send you to the UK on an intra-company transfer.
  • Temporary worker: you can come temporarily if you are sponsored by a licensed sponsor organisation, and you are working in the same field as your sponsor.  You can only come if you make a “unique contribution” to the UK labour market.

How, in this structure, might a recently graduated arts professional, or young artist, apply to live and work in London?  It is worth looking a little more closely at the language and the categorisations that are used by the immigration authorities to understand exactly why it is that our regulations exclude designers, artists and creative professionals from living in London.

“Exceptional Talent”

You can apply to live and work in the UK as a ‘high value’ migrant if you have already established your career to the extent that you are deemed – with proof – to be a ‘world leader’.  This is one of the few exceptions in the new visa regulations that accepts value in something other than money – however, to be deemed a “world leader” is not necessarily an easy feat if you are a young artist, perhaps a recent graduate just starting out…

The “Entrepreneur” (Entrepreneur, Graduate Entrepreneur, or Investor)

Or you can come as an ‘entrepreneur’ if you already have ready access to £50k.  Where perhaps traditionally the word ‘entrepreneur’ might have been used to notate someone who had the skills and potential to earn money through ingenious ways, such is the state of our country now that you cannot, it is assumed, be ‘entrepreneurial’ without already having wads of cash.  Or perhaps an ‘investor’ – this time you need access to £1m for this designation.  ‘Investment’ is a term only ever related to money, and at a level most of us will never have access to.  The ‘graduate entrepreneur’ category offers some small hope – but it requires that a) you are a graduate, b) you are sponsored, and c) you set up a business.

The “skilled” worker vs. the inherent instability of arts practices and their lack of recognised “structure”

Looking at the next category that might encompass our highly skilled arts graduates – “General”, for those offered a “skilled” job in the UK – one quickly understands that the name itself is slightly disingenuous (the evidence for this being that this category includes those people who are paid salaries of at least £152,100p.a., without any other qualification at all.  Perhaps less “skilled worker”, and more “very well remunerated worker, no questions asked”).

Regardless, the “skilled worker” category is still the most likely chance for an early career artist.  Within this category there is the possibility to apply for a visa if you, 1) have a job that earns £20,500p.a. or more, and 2) sponsorship from a valid organisation, and 3) pass a resident labour market test.  None of this, on the surface, seems too bad, really, for most professionals.  The problem here really comes down to the inherent nature of the work that artists and other creative professionals undertake – artists, musicians et al just do not operate in a world that would easily fit this model.  They often do not have permanent contracts, so providing evidence of a contracted salary of £20k is tough, or in fact likely to be not at all achievable.  And as remarkable as this may seem, the sum, whilst not at all high, may actually be more than a recent arts grad could reasonably be expected to earn a year.  And being sponsored by one organisation or institution that has the right to do this (i.e. is officially licensed) and the time it takes a company to do this, is not simple either.  Much employment in the arts is freelance, often based on one-off grants or payments or sponsorship that goes to people or organisations that may not have the type of institutional standing that this requires.  They might not have the administrative ability or time or resources to put together the sponsorship documentation.  And in fact most artists in reality are freelancers, working precariously without the stable organisation around them that this visa requires.

Resident Labour Market Test (and “shortage occupations”)

And finally – the resident labour market test.  This part is a real problem – perhaps even more so that the other two, because it betrays a complete misunderstanding of the inherent point of art, in life, and in society.  This is a test that states you will not be accepted for a visa in the UK if the job you are going to be employed to do could be undertaken by a citizen already legally residing in the UK.  How on earth do you prove that this artists’ residency or that part in the orchestra could not be done by someone else?  The fact is, it definitely could be.  There will be other, British-based violinists.  The point of employing a particular artist, writer or musician, over another artist, writer or musician is not that they are a body filling one place – one features writer, one conductor, etc. – but that the way they fill that place is different to the way that someone else would do it.  That’s the whole point of a creative job, the whole point of employing one particular artist – each is individual, each is experimental in a different way to the other, because they are different people with different views and different ways of creatively using their skills, in a job that is inherently subjective.  You cannot prove in an eligibility test that X writes a better or different article to Y, it just is the case.  Y could just as easily write the article as X, but with vastly different results, despite both covering exactly the same number of words, or space on a page, or subject matter (or some other identifiable criterion).  You cannot say that because Van Gogh did landscapes and Constable did landscapes that you can get rid of one of them from the National Gallery – everything about that would be absurd.

Limited Places

And, to suggest that an artist from overseas needs to do a job that cannot be filled by an artist here implies some kind of limit to the number of artists in the country – we’ve got enough of those, thank you.  Whereas the point about what makes London great for artists (and, anyone else) is the fact that there are lots of them, it is a creative, vibrant, stimulating place.  London houses better art (if there can be such a thing) because there are more artists here, they complement each other by their presence, they compete, they test each other.  You cannot just establish a system of replacing ‘like for like’ and hope that the London arts scene can keep thriving.

Dumb Visas- 

So the current visa regulations, by focusing almost entirely on money, on institutional forms of backing, and on a set of characteristics the values behind which are utterly inappropriate for the creative arts, are not fit for service for encouraging actual “skilled” creative professionals into the city.

The irony of all this, of course, is that – as has been noted many times elsewhere – art and artists are used by capitalist systems to, directly or indirectly, make profit for private business.  There is ‘high value’, in monetary terms, in keeping London full of artists and designers.  Land developers know very well the use artists can be in paving the way for ‘regenerating’ an area in a way that will be profitable to said developers.  But perhaps this consideration is a little too long-termist for policy makers in our current government.
And really, in an ideal world, the point about art, deign, music and so on is not anything at all to do with money.  Life is just better with art.


‘Kicked Out!‘ is an interdisciplinary project based on the SAVE LONDON texts about visa regulations harming the design and creative industries in London.  Please click here to find out more about the SAVE LONDON project.

To contribute your experiences to the ‘Kicked Out!‘ Project, please click on this link.