Dyson slams "short-sighted" plans to freeze out foreign graduates

06 January 2015 -


British manufacturing boss accuses government of severely underestimating economic and technical benefits that non-EU postgrads bring to UK

Jermaine Haughton

One of the UK’s most famous inventors, Sir James Dyson, has joined a backlash against home secretary Theresa May’s plans to force foreign students out of the country once they have finished their studies. Announced during the Christmas period, the policy has been tipped for inclusion in the Tory election manifesto – as per May’s wishes – as she makes a push for zero net student migration.

From a political standpoint, the proposals have been viewed as an attempt to win round potential UKIP voters. However, Dyson – who recently unveiled plans to dramatically boost R&D at his household-gadgets firm – said in a Guardian column that vote-chasing pledges would only have a negative effect on UK manufacturing and production skills in the long term.

“Theresa May’s latest ploy to swing voters concerned about immigration magnifies my worry: she wants to exile foreign students upon qualification from British universities,” he wrote. “Train ’em up. Kick ’em out. It’s a bit short-sighted, isn’t it? A short-term vote winner that leads to long-term economic decline. Of course the government needs to be seen to be ‘doing something’. But postgraduate research in particular leads to exportable, patentable technology. Binning foreign postgraduates is, I suppose, a quick fix. But quick fixes don’t build long-term futures. And that’s exactly what many researchers are doing.”

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 51,000 of the 121,000 non-EU students that came to the UK in the year up to June 2014 have now departed, presenting a net gain of 70,000. However, Dyson urged: “Our borders must remain open to the world’s best. Give them our knowledge, allow them to develop their own and permit them to apply it on our shores. Their ideas and inventiveness will create technology to export around the world.”

He added: “May’s immigration plans simply force the nimble minds we nurture to return home and create competition overseas. Why would they return? Often they hail from emerging economies and nations that respect science and engineering. The hard truth is that the homegrown postgraduate population is pitifully thin, so companies such as Rolls-Royce take their research and engineering capability overseas.”

The ONS has predicted that numbers of foreign students will continue to rise in the UK by 6% per year up to 2020. However, experts have suggested that a potential steady stream of young workers could help to offset the country’s ageing population. According to Moody’s, 18% of UK citizens will be in the over-65 bracket by 2015 – a figure that will rise to almost 22% by 2030.

Dyson argued that technology and manufacturing firms are already struggling to find talent and legislative support on their own shores – and their predicament could get even worse in the light of a foreign-graduate freeze-out, with the economy needing at least another 640,000 engineers by 2020 to have a hope of sustainable growth.

“Dyson is searching for scientists and engineers,” he wrote. “But there simply are not enough … Recently, American-born, British-based neuroscientist John O’Keefe suggested the government’s visa restrictions limited applications of bright foreign students to British universities. O’Keefe’s research into the brain’s GPS system at University College London won a Nobel prize. To take his research further, he needs to expand his team. But guess what? He’s struggling.”

He added: “We look for polymaths excited by problem solving and unafraid to test limits. Skills British universities teach like no other. One mistake has been seeing our world-class education as an export. Britain offers foreign students the best education in return for eye-watering fees. We think that’s a good little ‘industry’.

“Yes, these students net Britain nearly £7bn each year. But sending them home with new technology developed here presents very good value to our competitor nations. Instead, our education system should be a tool to import the world’s greatest minds. And, most importantly, to keep them here, so our economy – and our culture – benefits.”

For more thoughts on harnessing skills, sign up to this forthcoming CMI seminar Managing the Value of Your Talent.

Image of Sir James Dyson courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

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