We need to unleash the untapped entrepreneurial potential of foreign students


Over the last few weeks, there has been much debate about the increase in the number of international students coming to the UK.

This culminated last week in the recommendation by the Migration Advisory Committee that the graduate route – which allows students to stay for up to two years after they finish their studies – should be retained despite concerns that it was being used as a backdoor entry route into the UK.

That decision may yet not be positive news for the higher education sector and, as this column has discussed, the recent decline in international student applications may cause serious financial difficulties for several universities in the next few months. Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric over the last few months has focused on the negative aspects of overseas recruitment rather than looking positively at the benefits this can bring to the UK. Some of this was addressed last week when a number of leading businesses emphasised the positive impact that international students have on the UK’s skills base, future workforce, and influence overseas.

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Yet few have discussed what is currently a lost opportunity to make the most of what talented young people can do through entrepreneurship. Back in 2006, AnnaLee Saxenian of the University of California, Berkeley published a groundbreaking work entitled The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy. It studied the impact of highly skilled immigrants in Silicon Valley and showed, for the first time, that Chinese and Indian scientists and engineers were running nearly a third of the region’s high-tech businesses that collectively accounted for nearly $17bn (£13bn) in sales and more than 58,000 jobs.

Since then, there have been countless studies that have confirmed the importance of immigrants in driving technology-based entrepreneurship, with more than half of the top US tech companies founded by first- or second-generation immigrants.

Indeed, the father of Apple founder Steve Jobs was a Syrian immigrant, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is a second-generation Cuban immigrant, and Google founder Sergey Brin was born in Russia. This shouldn’t be surprising as a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed immigrants in the USA perform better on nearly all the innovation measures they examined.


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