London has the most talented workforce in the world. Research from Deloitte has proved it, finding that the capital has 1.5m people working in high-skill, knowledge-based business sectors. That compares with 1.2m in New York, our closest rivals. So it won’t come as any surprise that the business community gets twitchy when it sees looming threats to London’s talent pool. And two of the most significant involve immigration policy: one concerning international students and the other already educated, highly-skilled workers.
International students make up a significant proportion of the so-called net migration figures – which are used by anti-immigration campaigners to beat the government with. Yet as a ComRes survey for London First reveals today, the public doesn’t view students as immigrants at all. Only 17 per cent consider non-EU international students studying in Britain to be migrants, so it would be more accurate to reclassify them as temporary visitors. Furthermore, today’s poll also finds overwhelming public agreement that international students can bring valuable skills to British businesses after they graduate.
Government rhetoric seems out of sync with all of this – and the result is that the number of Indian students in Britain halved between 2011 and 2014. Meanwhile, our competitors, such as America and Australia, have increased the numbers they attract. To make Britain more attractive to international students – while also boosting our economy – we should consider reintroducing the post-study work visa, which allowed graduates of UK universities to work here for a couple of years after studying.
Of course, critics of immigration say that Britain needs to do more to up-skill British-born workers. That’s a fair point – and it’s why the government and many major employers have rightly been so focused on increasing the number of apprenticeships. But this is no panacea. For starters, it can take years to get people up to the skill levels that businesses need today.
Foreign-born talent also fosters an exchange of ideas which helps London to trade globally, create jobs and nurture entrepreneurship. Professional services firms wanting to sell their wares in China, for example, will increase the skills of their UK-born workforce if they can also hire people born in China. Why’s that? Because skilled immigrants can bring specific expertise about a foreign market and how to sell there. So it’s vital that government policy does not prevent companies from hiring the foreign-born workers they need.
To remain a place where big companies locate their head offices – and therefore continue to employ lots of people – we also need to fix current rules which are a nightmare for graduate schemes. Many of our most successful firms like to train all their international graduates in London, so that they can be imbued with the British way of thinking about commerce. This is good for our nation’s soft power and for encouraging an enlightened, ethical view of business. But these schemes are at risk because companies are struggling to get the visas they need.
Finally, because we’re a dynamic economy, we’re constantly creating new types of jobs that couldn’t have been predicted years in advance, in sectors from fintech to life sciences. In Tech City, for example, the coding skills needed for software engineering evolve constantly: Apple’s major programming language, Swift, has only existed for 18 months. When technology is moving so quickly, delays in the visa process are more than just a nuisance for our most dynamic businesses.
Some people believe that a draconian approach towards skilled immigration will create a utopia, but all it will do is slow London’s ability to improve living standards for those born here. Skills shortages will always flare up at short notice. And being able to hire the very best specialists on the planet ensures that businesses don’t stagnate but can genuinely thrive.