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UK policy to attract talent ‘not working’ – report

Student visas should be seen as a path to permanent residency and flexible ‘follow-up’ visa schemes 'are needed' if governments are to attract talent.
September 6 2023
4 Min Read

Student visas should be seen as a path to permanent residency and flexible ‘follow-up’ visa schemes should be introduced if governments are to attract talent, a new report has suggested.

The Passport to Progress report, published by think tank representing the UK’s entrepreneurial community The Entrepreneurs Network and global education non-profit ABE Global, urges government to rethink its migration policy.

A key recommendation is that international graduates should have access to unsponsored right to work in the UK following their graduation.

Along with ‘dual intent’ and flexible visa schemes to ease switching visas upon graduation, the report says international graduates should be exempt from migration caps and have the right to launch their own businesses upon graduation.

It also calls on governments to “actively step in” to expand loans and scholarship options for exceptional talent who do not have the means to cover university and living costs.

The research highlights the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Scholarship covering selected students’ expenses at some universities as a good example of attracting talent. Other countries are not using their sponsorship programs to the maximum potential, it contends.

“Governments can create extremely selective student loan programs and scholarships specifically for exceptional international students at annual caps. Universities can be made responsible for spotting the top talent and governments will provide the funding needed,” the paper says.

UK House of Lords peer and founder and chairman of Cobra Beer, Lord Bilimoria, said that if the UK government wants to increase productivity, innovation and economic growth, a “flexible, proactive and competitive” immigration system is needed to incentivise students to choose the UK.

The report argues that the current sponsorship system disproportionately benefits big firms and does not incentivise graduates to launch their own business in the country.

Bilimoria, who himself set up Cobra Beer in the UK after graduating from the University of Cambridge, referred to immigrants as “natural allies” for those governments seeking economic growth.

“The desire to succeed, the craving to build something new and the entrepreneurial soul are a part and parcel of many immigrants’ personalities,” he said.

Access to work, stable paths to permanent residency and costs of education are seen as common challenges across study destinations, with some having better migration policy in place.

Canada has been “exceptionally successful” in attracting high-achieving international students in the past two decades, seeing a six-fold increase in numbers.

Historically, the US has also been successful, the report indicated, pointing to the Operation Paperclip which recruited over 1,600 German engineers and scientists after the Second World War.

Governments should establish specialised task forces to actively recruit entrepreneurs and talented STEM professionals, it said.

Ireland’s Critical Skills Employment Permit allowing firms to import talent as long as they maintain a 50% European national workforce, Israel’s Innovation Labs programs providing critical technological infrastructure to migrant entrepreneurs and New Zealand’s Global Impact Visa offering training, investment and networking opportunities are all noted as successful policy interventions.

Canada, it says, is “realising the benefits of positioning international graduates as the future of its workforce”. Competitor countries should be looking to adapt migration policy as they face talent shortages and productivity stagnation, it contends.

It highlights the UK’s High Potential Individual visa as “a unique and creative policy example”, but says at the two-year work visa route should be expanded beyond the current top 200 universities to include institutes such as the Indian Institutes of Technology.

“Recently, the central relationship between immigration and innovation has come under attack”

Chief executive officer of ABE Global, Rob May, warned that, “Recently, the central relationship between immigration and innovation has come under attack.”

He said that the positive effects of migration have “once again become clouded in a hostile narrative that finds its fulfilment in the populist rhetoric that any immigration is antithetical to national progress”.

Researcher at The Entrepreneurs Network and author of the report, Derin Kocer, highlighted the need to increase productivity as the way to meaningful economic growth.

“Many countries, especially developed economies like the UK, have been rather unsuccessful in increasing productivity over the past decade and thus their GDP per capita growth either slowed down substantially or stagnated. To break this cycle, the UK needs to invest more in innovation. For that, it needs innovators and entrepreneurs,” he told The PIE.

Business leaders have been citing ‘access to talent’ as a main concern, he continued.

“The need for talent will only grow as new technologies change the skills needed to work productively.”

Kocer cited delays in semiconductor fabs operations in the US due to talent shortages, with China and Canada – which recently made it easier for H-1B visa holders in the US to come to Canada – introducing favourable policies.
“The race isn’t only between rivals but also among friends. If the UK can’t recognise this, then the big political ambitions of becoming a ‘science superpower’ or ‘green superpower’ can only stay as ambitions,” he said.


The UK government can be “much more bold and ambitious in spotting talent”, he concluded. One option is to expand the High Potential Individual visa to professionals as well as graduates from top universities.

“For instance, if the UK wants to invest in Artificial Intelligence or innovate in sustainable energy, it should make immigration much easier for people with talent in these spheres.”
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