Viva la Visa

Finally some good news! This week Boris announced that the Post-Study Work visa will return in 2020. As my colleague Sam Dumitru wrote in City AM: "It is hard to think of a more short-sighted and self-destructive policy than Theresa May’s decision in 2012 to close the Post-Study Work visa route for those wanting to live and work in Britain."

It may not be immediately obvious why the return of the Post-Study Work visa is such a boon for entrepreneurship in the UK. After all, this was a visa that let foreign graduates stay for two years working for someone else – not themselves. However, delving into the stories of Britain’s top immigrant entrepreneurs reveals the importance of this route. Business ideas don’t come ready-formed upon graduation. A bit of experience goes a long way. Giving graduates the time they need to research and develop their business idea is essential and the Post-Study Work visa did exactly that.

Back in 2015 we surveyed international students with the National Union of Students, finding that 42% of international students intended to start up their own business following graduation. On the back of this, Made in the UK called for the return of the Post-Study Work visa. It's only taken four years to get what we want!

May’s decision to end the Post-Study Work visa put UK universities on the back foot compared to our global competitors. In our survey, only 18% of international graduates studying in the UK thought we had better post-study processes in place for international students than other countries.

We recently took a dive into the crème de la crème of Britain’s fastest growing companies in our Job Creators: The immigrant founders of Britain’s fastest growing businesses report. With support from Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia, we looked at where the founders of these high-growth companies came from. It revealed that while 14% of UK residents are foreign-born, 49% of the UK’s fastest-growing startups have at least one foreign-born co-founder.

Many of the entrepreneurs moved to the UK to study at one of our world-leading universities. For instance, the co-founders of Oxford Space Systems, Vincent Fraux and Juan Reveles, both came to the UK to study. Their Top 100 company develops innovative deployable antennas and structures for space, employs over 35 people, exports to the US, Europe and Asia, and invests heavily in research and development to create intellectual property. Fraux thought the UK made a mistake by withdrawing the Post-Study Work Visa, “resulting in international students with potential leaving the UK right after finishing their degree.”

Miguel Martinez is the co-founder and Chief Data Scientist of Signal AI, a fast-growing UK company that analyses, in real-time, millions of news articles per day in order to improve the quality of business intelligence and decision making across organisations.

This Top 100 firm has grown from 3 people in a London garage to over 120 people in the UK, US and Asia, raising around $30m in the process. Miguel came to the UK from Spain to study for a PhD at Queen Mary’s University. Prior to today’s announcement he voiced his frustration at the UK’s irrational approach to post-study work, saying: “We are basically training the best people in the world, paying for part of their PhD with taxpayer’s money and then telling them they have to leave the country the moment they finish.” He welcomed the return of the Post-Study Work visa on Twitter.

With the presumed ending of free movement, more must be done if we are to create a visa system fit for attracting the world’s best entrepreneurs. A priority should be making the Innovator Visa, which had just two successful applications in the last quarter, fit for purpose. This is the visa anyone on the relaunched Post-Study Work visa will need to move onto if they decide to start a business. The Government should also consider allowing people to be self-employed on the new version of the Post-Study Work visa, giving them time to test out their ideas before starting a company through the Innovator route.

But, after years of criticising successive governments on this issue, it would be churlish not to take a few days off to give credit where it’s due. At a time of political polarisation, much of the credit for this change should be awarded to the Conservative’s Jo Johnson MP and Labour’s Paul Blomfield MP. Their cross-party efforts have paid off. As Johnson wrote in the foreword of Job Creators: “A global Britain embraces the aspirational values of international talent.”

(I've written for ConservativeHome on why letting overseas students stay to work is right, and opens up new opportunities for our economy.)

Sage Advise
Freelance writer Sabuhi Gard is looking for case studies for a guide she is producing for Sage on importing and exporting. The businesses need to employ around 50 to 100 staff. She wants to know about your export strategies and advice that could be given to other small businesses in the shadow of Brexit. You can drop her an email here.

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