The world’s brightest will shun the UK if isolationist rhetoric doesn’t stop now

 
Karan Bilimoria
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Theresa May's plans to send foreign graduates home after they finish their studies was quashed by Osborne (Source: Getty)
We all have our own image of UK entrepreneurship. Sir Richard Branson is a common first choice, and Sir James Dyson is another. For me, it is the Indian Restaurateur.

When I first founded Cobra Beer 25 years ago, it was these tireless, unsung heroes of UK entrepreneurship who placed their trust and belief in my business. It is thanks to them that, today, I can see my Indian beer fill patrons’ glasses – both in the curry house and in that most British of all institutions, the pub.

That is what makes our economy one of the greatest in the world. It gives migrants the chance not only to build a business, but to see it become a part of the UK’s national identity – what, after all, could be more British than going out for a chicken tikka?

But as my own company has grown, so too has Britain’s antipathy towards migrants like myself. When I started Cobra in 1989, a little over 10 per cent of people considered immigration to be the most pressing issue facing the country; today it is nearly 40 per cent.

A report published this week by London First (and commissioned by Boris Johnson) highlights just how real the dangers of Britain taking the wrong path are. Calling openness to immigration one of the “critical underpinnings” of London’s success, it warns that turning away talented people could hamper Britain’s ability to remain competitive.

For a nation that still exports more to Switzerland than it does to India, this is sound advice. The long-term prospects of our economy depend upon Britain’s ability to successfully pivot its focus towards emerging Asian markets such as India and China.

Yet, in 2013, UK universities experienced a 25 per cent drop in the number of Indian-born students enrolling. Feeling spurned by Britain’s isolationist rhetoric, the world’s brightest and best are voting with their feet.

When politicians, like home secretary Theresa May, speak of moving towards “zero net student migration”, by sending foreign graduates home after they finish their studies – as she did last month, before having her proposals quashed by George Osborne – they are exhibiting a startling degree of economic illiteracy. While I’m glad that these specific plans look unlikely to happen, the broader shift in Britain’s immigration debate has not gone unnoticed abroad.

I recall being at a lecture in London where the Australian education minister Christopher Pyne thanked the UK government for its immigration policies because of the boost they provided to Australia’s higher education sector. Between May and Nigel Farage, we can hardly be surprised that Indian students are choosing to study in Brisbane and Canberra rather than Birmingham and Cambridge.

Today, 42 per cent of current international students profess an intention to set up their own business following graduation, but only 14 per cent wish to do this in the UK. If the government, and May in particular, persist with their vendetta, it will only be a matter of time before we turn away the next Steve Jobs or Sir James Dyson.

This year, Britain faces a fork in the road. On the one path lies openness and prosperity – on the other, isolation and decline. Let us hope we have the wisdom to choose the former.

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