Soapbox

January 12, 2014 10:39 pm

Bright brains need to be allowed to cross the border

The UK’s immigration policy towards non-EU graduates is damaging to European business

The business education industry is a tightly knit group. If you have been in the game for a few years, the chances are that you will have good friends in schools around the world: researchers, marketers, admissions people, teachers.

Apart from the executive education area, where competition is fiercer, business school people share things with each other. Competing schools are friendly. We see a lot of each other, at conferences and on the road. So schadenfreude is not something I would normally feel when looking over at my counterparts in UK business schools. But these days, it is hard not to feel a sense of pity for these friends of mine.

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According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, the number of test scores being sent to German business schools has increased at more than three times the rate of those being sent to UK schools since 2008. There are a few reasons for this, not least the disproportionate impact of the Bologna accord on the German education system, splitting the traditional five-year diploma into bachelors and masters, thus increasing mobility into German masters programmes.

GD551 Beale

But one reason that we can all agree on is the change in UK immigration policy. These days, graduates from San Francisco, São Paulo or Seoul are turfed out of the UK as a matter of course after spending a wonderful year at Cranfield or Cambridge studying for a masters or MBA.

In 2012, the UK Border Agency reduced the time non-EU graduates had to find a sponsor or leave the country from two years to just four months. To offer sponsorship, an employer must be listed with the UK Border Agency and go through the bureaucratic hurdles, with the associated hassle and legal costs.

“Take your brains elsewhere, young men and women. We don’t want you here. Study and be expelled. It costs us votes,” is the message that seems to be coming from the UK government. To me, this is simply a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In Germany, business school graduates have 18 months to find an appropriate job and when they do, they can stay as long as they like. In Ireland, graduates looking to work in typical MBA occupations get automatic entitlement to a green card provided they can find a job within a year. In France, students who obtain a job related to their academic programme can stay as long as they like, as long as they are paid more than one and a half times the minimum wage.

Now, instead of heading to London, Cardiff or Edinburgh, the brightest Indians, Malaysians, South Africans, Peruvians and other world citizens are choosing the more welcome climes of Berlin and Paris to study for a masters. Here, they know they will be welcome to contribute to the country after they finish their studies. They will bring fresh perspectives, diverse thinking and brainpower to the German and French economies. They will pay high taxes and might even start families.

Frankly, I shouldn’t really care what the UK does with its high-skills immigration policy. Applications to business schools are up in Germany, where I work and earn my crust. Isn’t that all that matters?

Actually, no, it’s not. As a committed European, I do care. I was born in and grew up in Ireland, and have been fortunate enough to spend several years each in France, the UK and Germany. While I am utterly convinced that individual nations should determine their own affairs, I see collaboration and competition between European states as an opportunity, not a threat.

I am not saying that Britain does not need to manage its immigration properly. I simply do not believe that closing the UK to bright brains is good for anyone. Not for the EU, not for Germany, nor for my friends in London. We all need a diverse Britain with an open-minded and intelligent workforce to get European business growing again. Stronger EU trading partners with common ambitions will make us all more competitive in global markets and these partners need to do all they can to hold on to well-educated talent.

Europe’s competitiveness is under threat from markets in Asia and elsewhere. We need to increase our exposure to these potential new markets for European business. We need to ferment a culture of trust between Europeans and those from emerging powerhouses outside the EU, so that others will be willing to do business with us.

Research from the British Council shows a strong correlation between students and trade flows. A striking example is that 52 per cent of Russians who have studied in the UK are interested in conducting business with the UK, whereas only 32 per cent of those without a study connection have a similar level of interest.

So come on, UK government. Play fair. You don’t need to fear anything from smart foreigners. They will bring jobs in due course and pay you back manifold. And I need to know I can look my business school counterparts in the UK straight in the eye knowing that we are competing on a level playing field. Because schadenfreude doesn’t feel that good to me.

The author is director of MBA programmes at ESMT, Berlin.

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