UK should be more — not less — open to achieve it’s potential
Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recently published her government’s “Industrial Strategy” in a post-Brexit world. The Business Secretary Greg Clark indicated that the government would initiate a dialogue with businesses for “consultation on what should be our priorities for a long-term industrial strategy.”
The strategy seems to bet on a number of underlying technologies including “smart energy technologies; robotics and artificial intelligence and 5G mobile network technology.” Luckily it also takes into account the necessary skills that the workforce will need to support the UK’s ambition to become a global leader in these sectors. This includes:
- Increasing the number of PhDs in STEM subjects
- “Ensure that the UK attracts top international talent.”
It is this last subject which gave me pause as it stands in direct conflict to the anti-immigration rhetoric that has arisen in the country leading up to the Brexit referendum and into the current political dialogue.
I have long believed that London’s diversity is it’s key asset when compared to other technology hubs. Through our agreement with the European Union, through previous programs such as the High Skilled Migrant Program, through the attractiveness of UK universities, we have benefitted from an international and diverse influx of talent and brainpower. If the Prime Minister’s plan is to flourish the UK will need more, not less, influx of foreign talent to accelerate the opportunity her government has laid out.
Brexit has created a great level of anxiety within the tech community, especially around the status of European employees currently in the UK, and around the easy access to talent from abroad. That concern needs to be addressed as it directly underpins the potential success of the government’s “industrial strategy.”
Specifically, the UK should:
- Increase, not decrease, the number of foreign student visas and provide a path for UK-trained talent to remain in the UK
- Reinstate the Highly Skilled Migrant Program (which, in full discosure, is how I arrived in this country) to allow the best minds in the world easy access to the UK (I don’t believe that the Tier 2 visa or entrepreneur visa satisfies the “easy” component of this suggestion)
- Build academic centers of excellence to attract foreign academics. I often joke that the government-industrial partnership of WWII gave the US Silicon Valley and the UK…Formula 1. We have the potential to be a world-leader in AI, Robotics, Graphene but the rate of graduation of newly minted PhDs is not sufficient to attain that.
- Provide incentives for global innovation leaders to build deep technical teams in the UK. We have already benefited greatly from Google’s deep technical bench in London. Facebook is building out a large engineering team. They are training world-class engineers at a faster rate than any educational policy could. Invite more such investments.
Whatever the final outcome of the Brexit process, the country is about to enter a period of uncertainty. This puts the government’s “industrial strategy” at risk and , in my opinion, the single lever it must act upon to make it come to fruition is to make the UK the world’s most desirable hub for what Matt Clifford of Entrepreneur First elegantly called the “technology of ambition” of the modern era. This can only be achieved by making the UK more open to foreign talent, more open as a society and more embracing of the diversity that is already it’s strength.
PS It must be noted that organizations like Tech City UK and Coadec have played an active role in making opinions such as these heard inside of White Hall and continue to be vocal advocates for the potential of our ecosystem