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UK migration policy ‘will destroy’ science superpower goal

Technology entrepreneur Ewan Kirk has spoken to The PIE about concerns that current UK policy is harming the country's ambition to become a science superpower.
January 15 2024
4 Min Read

“The one thing we’re competing for is talent. Lab space can be found anywhere, the thing that really matters is the people.”

Technology entrepreneur Ewan Kirk spoke to The PIE about concerns amongst the scientific research and development community that current policy is harming the country’s ability to attract and retain talent.

In 2023, the prime minister Rishi Sunak launched a plan to cement the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower by 2030, by bringing “every part of government together”.

Kirk, who is the current entrepreneur in residence at the University of Cambridge, chair of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences and non-executive director at BAE Systems, believes the current situation couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Having formerly cherry-picked international STEM talent from the graduate pool in Cambridge for Goldman Sachs and later for Cantab Capital Partners – a firm he described as the world’s ‘geekiest’ hedge fund – he knows first hand the long-term value of attracting people at an early age to study in the UK.

“It’s actually much harder for us to bring in the brightest and best when they’re 40 years old and they have a career, a family and a mortgage,” explained Kirk of the current points-based immigration program.

“However we can attract them when they are 21 [and still completing their education] because they have the freedom to choose a different pathway. We need to lean into that again.”

Kirk is calling for a reversal of the government’s current migration policy which he feels is “unwelcoming” and working in contrary to the strategic goal to attract scientists to the country.

“If we want to be a science superpower, we can make it a lot easier for candidates to choose the UK. Rather than a two-year post-study work visa, we should be offering STEM graduates a 10-year visa to ensure we retain their skills long term [in the UK economy]”.

Spanning over a decade in power, the Conservative government has repeatedly targeted a reduction in net migration, with international students being included in the numbers.

This has happened despite international students currently subsidising the higher education system for domestic students.

Major shifts in access as a result of anti-immigration policy have created substantial swings in enrolment flows for British universities, with an increasing number reporting financial difficulties.

Speaking on the ban on dependants for taught postgraduate students that came into force at the turn of the new year, Kirk quipped “you cannot create an orchestra with only first violinists”.

 “You’ve got to have a whole range of people and skills [to make the ecosystem for innovation work]. This includes interest in different subjects at different levels but also for some people, having their loved ones with them.”

PhD, research and government sponsored students are currently exempt from the dependants ban and can still bring family members to the UK during their stay.

Kirk however, feels this is too nuanced and the reputational damage may already have been done.

“We want to make it easy for people, not just, you can fill in 400 forms and you might be able to bring your wife and kids with you.

“If I was in India, thinking of coming to the UK and I saw all of the current headlines about sending people to Rwanda – I might think ‘how do I know that’s not going to be me or my loved ones in the future?’”

It is Brexit however, that continues to be the biggest barrier.

When the UK left the European Union, one of the largest source markets of STEM and PhD students suddenly experienced high fees and visa restrictions for the first time.

“We definitely lost something,” laments Kirk in relation to the UK’s exit from associated schemes like Erasmus Plus. “The Turing scheme isn’t all bad but it isn’t as good as what we had.”

He describes a growing sense amongst colleagues, that since the referendum vote, things are “a little bit worse” with every passing year.

“In science, technology, innovation and education it is the details of implementation that really matter”

“I always tell the story about a talented Romanian graduate we hired [for Cantab Capital Partners prior to Brexit],” he recalls.

“I phoned him up to say we’re going to offer you a job and he said ‘great, I’ll start tomorrow’ and he just got on a plane and came over from Bucharest. That just happened, there was no friction in that decision.”

Kirk cites the marginal increases in the NHS surcharge and visa processing fees as part of the current friction that impacts student decision-making, calling it ‘bad policy making.”

“One of the issues in government is that politicians often believe that by stating the initiative, they’ve then done the initiative. They love soundbite announcements, but in science, technology, innovation and education it is the details of implementation that really matter.”

So, in the simplest of terms, are more international students a good thing or is there a natural ceiling for a country like Britain?

Amid pressure on public services, there is very little appetite from the current government to grow international student numbers.

“The simple answer is yes,” offers Kirk. “Is it too simplistic to assume that if a certain number of international students support our university sector, then maybe more of them would support a bigger university sector as well as economic growth?

“I would be completely happy with continued expansion [of international student numbers]. Not just a begrudging expansion but a welcoming expansion of those people who really are going to power us into being a technology science superpower in the future, because when it comes down to it, that’s where the money is.

“We are in danger of losing our crown as the best place for international research and study as well as our competitiveness as a scientific power. Immigration is vital to that goal and the sooner the government fixes the new migration policies, the better.”

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