Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, discusses how the UK tech industry can thrive in spite of Brexit.
In its current form, Brexit is threatening to hamper the growth of the British tech sector and our most prominent innovators. Tech London Advocates did not hide their opposition to the result of Brexit in 2016 when 87% of members expressed their opposition to the decision to withdraw from the EU. As scepticism and frustration grows around Brexit, we must continue to fight as a united community and ensure a prosperous future for British business.
The triggering of Article 50 raised uncertainty about British economic policy and dented business investment in the process. This has been compounded by a concerning lack of investment in technical education within British schools. Tech firms and SMEs already struggle to acquire the talent they need to expand and burgeoning areas such as cybersecurity are being stifled by a lack of talent. We must do more to replicate such initiatives as the Digital Skills Partnership, which allows for private and public sector collaboration and facilities the development of home-grown talent that will form the basis of our digital economy going forward.
Education and innovation
The demand for skilled tech workers is rising, yet tech education for young people aged 11-19 remains an area that requires significant attention. Just 10% of 20-45 year olds hold technical education as their highest qualification, placing the UK 16th out of 20 OECD countries. The new GCSE in Computer Science was an important step forward, but we must continue development in this field, particularly around the shortage of qualified teachers we’re facing. The BT Tech Literacy programme has been a breath of fresh air, showing the power of the private sector in helping ensure future generations are prepared for a new economy – we must continue to allow for similar initiatives to grow.
Innovation is also at risk. If not addressed in time, British tech research is facing an £8bn black-hole over the next 10 years as the flow of European funding dries up after 2019. Over the last 10 years, UK universities have received nearly £8bn in research funding from both the European Commission and the European Research Council. This funding has been used in the creation and fine-tuning of driverless cars at Oxford and the cultivation of Bristol’s Robotics Centre.
Investment in research and development is essential for sustaining the success of our knowledge economy. The private sector must continue to push for greater spending on R&D, in order for us to continue our impressive growth. If we increase investment in technical education while also embracing the inevitable rise of automation and artificial intelligence, we can create a thriving tech sector in the UK which combines automation with a swathe of new technical roles.
The UK’s reputation as a place to cultivate high growth tech companies is at risk amidst this growing uncertainty. This is the reality for those entrepreneurs planning to kick-start their tech businesses within the next five years. Immigration uncertainty has been an additional concern, and it is precisely for that reason that Tech London Advocates has campaigned for the government to introduce Third Party Sponsorship (TPS) of Tier 2 visas, which would enable larger and more established organisations to endorse visas. This would allow startups access to talent without burying them in red tape, while still ensuring professionals on visas have financial backing and a guaranteed job.
We cannot allow for overseas investors and entrepreneurs to take the lead from the likes of the European Investment Fund, which accounts for more than a third of investment to UK venture capitalism.
As recent data from London and Partners has shown, British FinTech startups are on track for a record breaking year in investment, further proving that while Brexit has cast a large shadow, our brightest tech stars will continue to shine as long as they are given the opportunity and the environment to thrive in.
The UK tech community must continue to stand united and put pressure on the government to deliver a Brexit deal that will not undercut the growth of a booming sector. Our digital economy is allowing Britain to stay ahead of the curve on a global scale, and we need to be proactive in protecting it, in order to ensure growth opportunities are not lost.