Philip Salter is founder of The Entrepreneurs Network.
As Home Secretary and Prime Minister, Theresa May made immigration a big deal. Some of that was driven by public opinion, but paradoxically it felt like the tougher the Government claimed to be getting, the more people felt it wasn’t being tackled. Talking heads kept claiming that the problem was that nobody was talking about immigration, but they talked of little else.
The EU referendum result and Windrush scandal changed this. Even before the end of free movement, the claim to ‘take back control’ seems to have eased concerns. Meanwhile, the Windrush scandal stirred in the British public a patriotic and empathetic defence of British subjects. We’ve seen a sea change: in 2011, 64 per cent of Britons told Ipsos-Mori immigration had been bad for the UK, in 2019 this has dropped to 26 per cent. Britain is now one of the most positive countries about immigration – alongside the likes of Australia, the US and Sweden.
May scrapped the Post-Study Work visa as an overreaction to bogus colleges. It’s a shame that her victory in shutting them down morphed into a campaign against international students.
Yesterday’s decision by Boris Johnson to bring back the Post-Study Work visa is not just driven by concerns about popularity. Unlike Cameron and May, Boris has refused to get into the numbers game. And when Mayor of London, he called for the introduction of a ‘London visa’ in a bid to attract talent from around the world.
May’s experience of the Home Office was a deviation from the trend towards growing openness and a global battle for talent. As Stian Westlake argues, it went on to dominate her premiership and her economic thinking: ‘I’d argue that the main reason for the demise of Tory economic thinking is cultural and institutional. To be precise, it comes from the culture of one institution, the Home Office. The Prime Minister and many of her closest advisers spent many years working for the Home Office and are steeped in its particular culture and world-view.’
The Prime Minister’s brother deserves credit for this policy. Jo Johnson pushed hard for the return of the Post-Study Work visa for a while, working with Labour’s Paul Blomfield and others across the aisle. This will be a huge relief for our universities. Post-Brexit we will need to play to our exporting strengths, and the university sector will be critical in supporting the ambitions of of a global Britain.
The option to stay on to gain work experience is a significant pull factor for the best and brightest. It also gives those who want to stay after the two years the time to make the connections to meet the criteria to stay.
This is also good for entrepreneurship. When we surveyed international students in 2015, we found that 42 per cent intended to start up their own business following graduation. Immigrants are more entrepreneurial than the native population, but they need time to build networks before making the leap.
In the US, more than half of all foreign-born founders of high-growth technology and engineering companies moved to the US initially to study. In many cases, they needed time to settle down, build contacts, and identify an opportunity for disruption. We recently revealed that 49 per cent of the UK’s fastest-growing startups have at least one foreign-born founder, despite 14 per cent of UK residents being foreign-born. As in the US, many of the entrepreneurs came to the UK to study, stayed to work, and serendipitously ended up starting a business.
Boris has shown leadership in reinstating the Post-Study Work visa. The British public is unperturbed. In fact, they weren’t ever really concerned about students. As Bright Blue showed: “The most popular type of immigrant for Conservatives is an international student: 87 per cent of Conservatives would admit a Chinese student who wants to pay to come and study for three years at a UK university.”
Now he just needs to get a good deal on Brexit.