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Turns out that the UK loves immigrants. Last week, a new ambitious Research and Development Roadmap outlined how Boris Johnson’s government plans to transform the country into a citadel of science, innovation, and blue-sky technological research. Central to that vision, according to a foreword by business secretary Alok Sharma, is “making the UK the very best place in the world to be a researcher, inventor or innovator” and, in so doing, becoming a magnet for the best and brightest, regardless of where they were born.
“We want to send a powerful signal to talented people around the world: come to the UK, be part of this exciting new future,” Sharma wrote. The document even announced the creation of a new Office for Talent, based in Number 10, whose vaguely phrased function will be hatching new plans to attract high-skilled workers to the UK.
Yes, mere days after Britain abolished freedom of movement from the European Union in the wake of Brexit, the country is now eager to throw the door open to foreigners, insofar as they are regarded as “talented”. In fact, that tension – or rather, ignoring that tension – is at the core of the “Global Britain” narrative: we welcome everyone, as long as everyone holds a computer science PhD. Dominic Cummings, Number 10’s chief advisor and one of the clear drivers behind the roadmap, has repeatedly called for the repeal of targets on high-skilled immigration, and in the same breath for a merciless crackdown on low-skilled entries.
The question is: can the plan work? Can post-Brexit Britain become a hoover for global talent?
It is, of course, complicated. The reasons why someone decides to move to a country are multilayered. But one of the first considerations certainly has to do with how welcome they expect to feel in the country where they plan to live and work. According to William R. Kerr, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, that means a country’s general conversation about immigration has an impact – independently on how specifically different categories of immigrants are treated in practice.
“For many people choosing to migrate to a country, that country’s actions or their policies or their rhetoric and tone towards migration more broadly also affects how high skilled talent is going to think of that country,” he says. “For instance, in the US context – you cannot have one tone towards the southern border with Mexico, and then expect to turn around and be able to say: ‘Oh, but we are welcome and open’.”
In this regard, the UK might face similar issues. While Britain’s quality of life is high, and the country is consistently regarded as open and welcoming, its reputation suffered in the wake of Brexit, especially given how prominent the debate about Brexit in general and immigration specifically has become in the country’s media.
The toll is apparent. Although the influx of EU citizens to Britain is still substantial, net migration – that is, the number of incoming people minus the number of those leaving the country – from Europe has now hit its lowest level since 2003. Were that the beginning of a wider trend of EU citizens spurning the UK, it might be a challenge for the government’s plan to remake Britain as a talent-magnet:according to the University of Oxford, 40 per cent of EU citizens from the 14 western EU member states living in the UK are in high skilled jobs – although that does not necessarily mean they are in the elite science and research positions Sharma referred to.
Of course, the UK might – and likely will – decide to shift its focus beyond Europe. Immigration from non-EU countries has actually increased since the 2016 referendum, and – due mostly to current visa requirements – a large proportion of people coming from Asia, for example, are in high skilled jobs – 45 per cent of Indian immigrants hold high skilled positions. Still, the wider problem remains, says Emma Carmel, a senior lecturer in the department of social and policy sciences at the University of Bath.
“The UK purposely designed its immigration policy over the last ten years around having a hostile environment to migrants,” Carmel says. “There’s a sense in which there will be more or less desirable migrants, there are more or less valuable migrants, but when you generate the idea of having a hostile environment, that actually affects everybody.”
Brexit and the hostile environment – and its corollary, the Windrush scandal – did not simply scare off talented expats by dint of the message they conveyed. They also wreaked uncertainty and disruption on the lives of foreigners who were already residing in the UK. And that, Kerr says, is another problem.
“You really need to have some kind of measure that in the foreseeable future you’re not going to radically change this relationship that they are establishing,” he says. “The individual is making an investment to come to Britain, and to develop the professional network and to settle their family and all these other kinds of things. And the last thing they want to have happen is two years later, suddenly, the rules of the game are changing.”
The government will really have to make an effort to change that narrative, says William Harvey, a professor of management at the University of Exeter. “That’s an uphill battle that the UK government has got to really take on very hard – to show that notwithstanding Brexit, it is very much open to business open to attracting the very top workers across a whole range of sectors,” he says.
“That has to come from the central government, from UK Trade and Investment. It has to come from the Foreign Office, it has to come from the prime minister, it has to be a very, very strong message.” Harvey thinks that the government should launch a massive marketing campaign to drive home that message.
That said, the UK has several strong suits. English is the most spoken language in the world, and is the lingua franca of science and business. Taxes are relatively low compared to other major European economies. The UK’s universities – a traditional pipeline to recruit talent – consistently rank among the best in the world, and are home to some of the best scientists.
“In thinking about science, and R&D, it also matters what kind of access you will have to the best researchers, access to people that you really admire,” Carmel says. “That really matters in terms of whether you want to go and work there.”
On this, the government is sending mixed messages. In 2019, it announced that it would scrap a 2012 rule that forced non-EU students from British universities to leave the UK within four months of graduating – planning to allow them to stay in the country for two years instead. On the other hand, last week, universities minister Michelle Donelan said that all EU students in the UK will lose their “home status” starting in 2021, meaning their tuition fees will treble. That might, reportedly, result in a staggering percentage of prospective EU students opting to study elsewhere in Europe – and start working there.
More fundamentally, though, what guides a prospective immigrant decision to move somewhere is whether the work they will do in their country of destination will be fulfilling. “Especially for science and engineering and very high-end, technical talent, being at the knowledge frontier is super important,” Kerr says.
“They’re willing to often take a little bit of a pay cut, at least in relative terms, to go to someplace where they have access to the latest and greatest ideas and where they are able to, you know, to participate in the push for knowledge.”
That seems to be something the UK has understood well. Hence the plan – also sketched in the R&D Roadmap – to inaugurate a new advanced research centre, “modelled on the US’ Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA)”, where scientists can essentially try out all the weird and daring moonshots they have dreamed about. This is Dominic Cummings’s baby(his WhatsApp status reportedly reads “Get Brexit done then Arpa”), and it bears the hallmarks of the marketing scheme that has earned him a reputation as a master campaigner. That said, Cummings’s ARPA will only receive £800 million in funding, and in general, the UK’s expenditure on R&D amounts to just 1.72 per cent of its GDP, below both Germany’s 3.09 and France’s 2.20. The government plans to increase that figure to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, and to increase R&D public funding to £22 billion a year by 2024.
One way of looking at this is that maybe we are posing the question in the wrong terms. It is not really about the UK’s attractiveness as a whole: it is more about the pull of its technical, scientific, and entrepreneurial hubs.
“If you take a place like Silicon Valley, for example, people aren’t just moving to the United States of America – they’re moving to Silicon Valley often because that is the hub,” Harvey says. As such, different parts of the UK have a role to play if the country as a whole is to promote its attractiveness. “Whether that’s the financial services sector in London, London’s Silicon Roundabout, the M4 corridor,” says Harvey. But how that squares with the government’s promise to “level up” the economy is another question entirely.
Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi
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