It seems every week there is a new government initiative to revamp the UK economy. But one that did grab the attention last week was the announcement of a £15.5m funding package by David Cameron support the UK’s most innovative firms and encourage the establishment of specialist clusters.
In addition, world-class tech experts will receive fast-tracked visas to help attract top tech talent to the UK’s digital economy from overseas.
Extending the government’s “exceptional talent visa” route to tech stars is an acknowledgement of the potential for tech business to really carry the UK economy forward, and in principle, this sounds like a smart move. By its nature, Tech City in particular is a vibrant and fast-growing breeding ground for potential big business to take off. It is recognised as Europe’s leader in the tech space and access to fast talent from abroad will certainly help to stimulate this further.
But, is this a long term solution to boost the UK’s tech economy, or a short-term fix to kick-start growth? Will this stifle the UK’s own budding tech stars from making it big? Moreover, does that really matter? If UK tech businesses are succeeding and driving growth in the economy, does it matter how they get there, or is it just as important that the opportunity for burning UK tech talent isn’t extinguished?
Would an influx of highly talented foreign tech stars even have a negative impact on the UK’s own tech talent? This isn’t a discussion unique to the tech industry of course. There has long been an argument in football that the top clubs in England purchasing rising football players from abroad is hampering Britain’s own potential young talent from progressing, and the national team’s performance for the last 20 years would back that claim. But surely, the best players will come through anyway, and in fact, are Britain’s top youngsters not benefitting from having better players around them, day in, day out? Perhaps then, it’s an issue at grass roots level?
Can the same be said of the tech industry? The government’s much vaunted and long delayed new curriculum would suggest that this is something they have also recognised, mapping out that computing skills must be at the heart of teaching for all lessons, from primary school age. No doubt that is the right approach. However, in reality, with education budgets tighter than ever, and some schools boasting a single IT suite fitted with 30 five-year-old desktop computers to serve 300+ children, how will that work in practice. Beyond that, will the hike in university fees prevent some potential top talent from ever making it that far? Or, will the brightest young minds find a way of coming through anyway – teaching themselves to succeed in their bedrooms and becoming the next Zuckerberg?
Perhaps the money generated for the government through this scheme, if it allows Tech City to fully take-off and flourish, should be re-invested in computing at ‘grass roots’ level – schools – to ensure that we have both the long-term and short-term answers to making the UK a tech power.