In order to sustain the tech boom, we need to offer international students a better deal, argues Gavin Poole, CEO of Here East.
Last week, London Tech Week showcased the best of British innovation – highlighting the collaboration and creativity that has established this city as the tech hub of Europe, and one of the most valuable in the world. In fact, in 2017 UK tech firms attracted almost four times more funding than Germany and this week research revealed that the UK contributes 13 of Europe’s 34 unicorns, equally £23bn in value.
The Home Office has used this opportunity to announce their new ‘startup’ visa that will allow migrants, with university or business endorsement to come to the UK and launch a business. Home Secretary Sajid Javid has asserted that the move is a direct result of the booming tech sector in the UK and the desire to maintain a high level of innovation and growth.
Whilst this is good news, I find it frustrating that the opportunity was not taken to introduce a new visa for international students, to allow them to transition seamlessly from education to work in the UK. Currently, the international STEM graduates that fill the capital’s universities face unnecessary and expensive barriers in transferring their skills to our businesses.
London is, at its very core, an international city. Students from all around the globe are drawn here by the first-class academic institutions, the dynamic economy and booming tech scene. A Tech City UK Report last year found that international workers from outside the EU accounted for 20% of the digital workforce in London, with a fifth of these holding a degree to Masters or PhD level. This demonstrates London is the destination of choice for the world’s top tech talent.
The technology companies that fill the capital benefit enormously from these young, curious minds. From creative digital agencies in Soho, to the 3D printing businesses that occupy Hackney, students bring a creative and innovative mind-set that is invaluable to the sector.
We know just how difficult it is for international students to stay in the country. I heard first-hand how students have no option but to return home whilst waiting to find out if they will be sponsored for a Tier 2 visa. Some return, but many start successful business in their home nation or in others. But with skills and education, it is to our detriment that the government does not actively encourage them to stay and contribute to UK businesses and our economy.
These students deserve better. Before immigration numbers became a political football, international students were entitled to a Tier 1 post-study visa that allowed them to stay in the country whilst applying for Tier 2, undertaking work experience, internships and volunteering projects whilst they finalised their sponsorship. This was cut in 2012 as part of a wider immigration reform, despite protests at the time that STEM students in particular offer enormous benefits to our economy.
Looking to Brexit
With the official Brexit deadline lurking less than a year away, we need action to ensure the future of the sector. With this deadline in mind, it is vital to secure our support for international students before EU students start to face these same unnecessary barriers and hurdles.
The success of last week’s London Tech Week is a good indication that the UK is the leader of European tech at the moment, but there are other cities hot on our heels, pouring investment into their tech hubs in order to compete.
What will happen to EU students after Brexit remains uncertain. But if they face these same barriers, you can be certain that both Paris and Berlin amongst others will be waiting to welcome them with open arms.
The London tech scene has witnessed a spectacular period of growth and investment in recent years and if this boom has shown us anything, it is that there is room for everyone here. For those who have the vision, drive and skills, London can provide them with the opportunities and investment they need to flourish.
It is time that the government recognised these young people for the value they hold – before they decide to take their business, ideas and entrepreneurial talents elsewhere.