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Russ Shaw

Founder, Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates

International students have a key role to play in the future of the UK’s tech sector

Britain has a long and esteemed history as a centre of academic excellence. It is home to institutions that have made a remarkable contribution to the modern global economy. You would be gravely mistaken in attributing the incredible feats that are born in UK universities solely to students that are born on British soil.

International students are at the heart of the UK’s academic prowess and now it is time we realise the economic potential.

A highly anticipated report from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), commissioned a year ago by the government to take a look at the impact of international students in the UK, was made public last week.

The findings made for an instant media frenzy – and for good reason. The report is littered with startling statistics and recommendations that could very well inspire the next wave of policy reform and define the message that the UK is to broadcast globally about young talent.

Since changes were made to post-study visa rules back in 2012, the number of graduates applying for a visa extension to work in the UK has dropped from 45,000 to around 6,000. This outlines the issue that Britain is facing in retaining world-class, highly talented individuals, who are acquiring skills and then heading home due to visa constraints and challenging administrative hurdles.

Talent is at the heart of the tech sector and is a key component of Britain’s rise to the top, alongside the titans of the US and China. An effective, skilled workforce must be built from two recruitment pools: firstly, the tech ecosystem requires homegrown talent that can deliver on the progress to date and drive innovation. Secondly, we require overseas workers, bringing knowledge transfer and creating a free-flowing pipeline that can ensure supply meets demand in the UK’s fastest growing sector.

As an ambitious community, the collective of entrepreneurs, leading figures and investors from across the tech sector cannot stand idle as the world’s brightest minds receive their graduation certificates and then head off home due to restrictive visa policies.

One of the key issues, and rightly brought to the forefront by the MAC report, is the difficulty that students face in translating the Tier 4 international student visa into a Tier 2 skilled worker visa.

Within the tech ecosystem, businesses are crying out for talented workers, job vacancy levels remain critically high and companies continue to cite access to qualified personnel as one of the biggest barriers to growth. The tech sector is calling for a fit-for-purpose immigration system that supports the tech community and allows skilled international students to remain in the UK – some of which will fill these positions and go on to generate huge benefits for the British economy.

It’s often overlooked, but important to recognise that when talented, ambitious and highly educated students settle in the UK post-studies, some will go on to be entrepreneurs and builders of the disruptive tech companies of tomorrow. It is not difficult to imagine which markets these business leaders look to expand into.

With the understanding of an overseas business climate, often language skills and connections, these companies are international in outlook and further boost the UK as a truly global tech hub.

While the UK will continue to impose no direct restrictions on the number of international students permitted to come to Britain, industry leaders have long called for the removal of the statistic from the UK’s net migration figures – and it is disappointing to see that it looks set to remain.

At a time of political turbulence, if we are to ensure future growth within the tech sector, the message we need to send to our global counterparts is that the UK is open and welcoming to the world’s best and brightest. With international students remaining part of the overall target, we risk restricting access for workers and appearing closed.

There is a role for the private sector to play here. The government has unveiled plans for third-party sponsorship within the new ‘start-up’ visa, removing some of the administrative onus from the public sector. In the transition between the Tier 4 visa and the Tier 2, there is room for businesses to pick up more of the slack and strengthen their capacity to recruit international students.

Now more than ever, the UK must come to recognise the valuable contribution that international students have in Britain, ensuring that every effort is made to translate potential into economic growth. Retaining the world-class talent that will fuel the tech sector is vital.