Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Second-Guessing the Digital Economy

As mentioned in a previous post, government policy in Britain has seen a successful motion towards reducing net immigration, characterised most prominently by a significant toughening up of visa regulations this year. In spite of this, prominent voices on the right have recently been calling for a selective easing of this approach.

In a paper devoted to the enrichment of the digital economy, Chris Yiu praises the UK's largely forward-thinking practices. Coming from a long standing "tradition of excellence", British universities are prioritising the expansion of their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) department, and London remains within the top three locations in the world for technology start-ups.

Nevertheless, there are some crucial problems with the current state of affairs. It is apparent that, while universities appear to be successfully upping the pace of education, the British school system is lagging well behind. School IT courses for example often merely involve training students in one or two common collections of tools, such as Microsoft's Office suite, while entirely neglecting fundamentals, such as computer programming, that allow secondary school leavers to be genuinely competitive on the international skills market. The quality of university graduates also appears to leave something to be desired, as demand for skills continues to vastly exceed the supply within the UK.

It is important to note that, in spite of Britain's friendliness to its own graduates, even foreign students who come to the country with fully-formed ideas for enterprise (the sort of start-ups current government policy seeks to encourage) often find themselves unable to stay and are instead forced to look elsewhere. In essence, this allows other countries to tap Britain's well-developed higher education system with their best candidates without having to worry about the loss of their skills, knowing with some certainty that such students will be forced to return once fully trained. The immigration system currently makes allowances, in the form of the "Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur)" visas that exist for highly skilled graduates with big ideas, although they require a prohibitively high amount of funding from British sources as well as being capped at 10 visas per educational institution and at 1,000 in total. With overseas students being natural targets to make up for such a skills shortfall, it is nonsensical and harmful to deny them access to the UK.

Nevertheless, it is a risky move to attempt to second-guess the future of the digital economy while ignoring the roles other highly skilled graduates might have to play. In this respect, Yiu's paper is somewhat short-sighted, recommending as it does specific visa benefits for foreign students completing courses in STEM subjects alone, allowing them to remain within the country for two years while looking for appropriate careers. While such a move would certainly be welcome, and would no doubt serve to bolster the ranks of suffering technology companies significantly, it would have even more benefit if applied to high-quality graduates across the board. A two year limit would allow Britain to retain many of the best candidates for a variety of professions as they leave university and would grant a much more wide-reaching advantage than such a narrow and ad hoc proposal.

As for the home market, it is quite rightly recommended that more emphasis is needed on the development of creative technical skills throughout all stages of education. This Conservative government would do well to learn from the mistakes of their Labour predecessors who sought to increase the quantity of graduates while ignoring their quality, resulting in the current circumstance of only half of the available workforce of STEM graduates being employed in relevant fields. While attempting to retain talent attracted from overseas therefore, much remains to be done to improve the technological education of students in this country, both at school and university.

This post is a response to Yiu, C. "Bits and Billions: A Blueprint for High-Impact Digital Entrepreneurship in the UK" Policy Exchange (2012). The report can be downloaded here. Reference was also made to Levy, C. and Hopkins, L "Shaping Up For Innovation: Are we Delivering the Right Skills for the 2020 Knowledge Economy?" The Work Foundation (2010), which can be found here.