Our visa system is failing international graduate entrepreneurs

The Entrepreneurs Network has just released a new report. Based on a survey of 1,599 international students, Made in the UK: Unlocking the Door to International Entrepreneurs reveals how the UK’s visa system is failing international graduate entrepreneurs who want to start a business in the UK.

Undertaken with support from the Adam Smith Institute and in partnership with the National Union of Students (NUS), we find that a significant proportion of international students – that is students coming from outside the EU – have entrepreneurial ambitions. In fact, 42% of international students intend to start their own business following graduation. However, only 33% of these students, or 14% of the total, want to do so in the UK. Clearly we are doing something wrong.

The Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) visa was set up in 2012 to encourage international graduates to start their businesses when post-study routes were taken away. However, uptake has been woeful and the results of the survey suggest this isn’t likely to change any time soon:

  • Just 2% of respondents intending to start a business following graduation applied for the UK Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) visa, with almost two thirds, 62%, saying they didn’t even consider it.
  • Nearly half, 43%, of respondents think their institution is certified to endorse them for a Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) visa.
  • Only 18% think that the UK has better post-study processes in place for international students than other countries; 32% think it is worse than other countries.

Based on these and further findings, the report puts forward nine recommendations for government, including:

  • Removing the Tier 4 ban on self-employment for those working within an institutional programme (curricular or co-curricular) or other accelerator.
  • Allowing UKTI-approved accelerators to endorse international students in their programmes under the Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) scheme.
  • De-coupling the risk for educational institutions in endorsing international graduates for Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) visas from institutions’ Tier 4 license. This should be made explicit in the official Home Office guidance and in the way the Home Office applies its audit procedures for institutions.
  • Reinstating a post-study work visa, de-coupled from the sponsor system, to allow international students to explore markets and industry before finalising their business idea for the Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) application. In fact, 81% of the respondents considering starting their own business are interested in the possibility of permanent residency under the Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) visa.

Our visa system isn’t supporting the entrepreneurial ambitions of international graduates. As things stand, we are training some of the world’s best and brightest young people at our world-class universities only to push them to set up their businesses overseas.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Releasing data could help Britain’s entrepreneurs scale-up

The celebrated entrepreneur, investor and adviser Sherry Coutu CBE has just released a detailed report on scale-up businesses. Scale-ups are defined as enterprises with average annualised growth in employees or turnover greater than 20 per cent per annum over a three-year period, and with more than 10 employees at the beginning of the observation period.

The Scale-Up Report explains how “a boost of just one per cent to our scale-up population should drive an additional 238,000 jobs and £38 billion to GVA within three years”…“[I]n the medium-term, assuming we address the skills-gap, we stand to benefit by £96 billion per annum and in the long-run, if we close the scale-up gap, then we stand to gain 150,000 net jobs and £225 billion additional GVA by 2034.”

The report identifies key issues for helping these companies grow:

  • Finding employees to hire who have the skills they need
  • Building their leadership capability
  • Accessing customers in other markets / home market
  • Accessing the right combination of finance
  • Navigating infrastructure

Twelve recommendations are put forward, but the first (arguably) offers the biggest bang for its buck:

Recommendation 1. National data sets should be made available so that local public and private sector organisations can identify, target and evaluate their support to scale-up companies, and evaluate their impact on UK economic growth.

The specific data required includes:

  • Company registration number
  • Revenue (UK and export)
  • Location of headquarters and plant
  • R&D tax credit (recipients and amount)
  • Employment data (number of pay slips issued in a given month)

It is suggested that data “should be made available on a real-time basis openly or to a cross-departmental scale-up support unit within government. This would allow both public and private sector organisations to target scale-ups accurately to make sure support is offered at right time to the right leaders.”

Releasing this data wouldn’t add to the bureaucracy faced by entrepreneurs. As the report explains, companies are already required to submit turnover data annually to Companies House, report on PAYE in real-time, file quarterly VAT returns, and report on the amount the spend on R&D (if claim R&D Tax Credits). However, as the report acknowledges, releasing this data raises questions around data privacy. To counter this criticism, the report uses the example of the Cambridge Cluster Map, where this sort of data is already collated, and 59 companies have asked to be included in it since its initial launch.

Also, following a YouGov survey, the report reveals: “83% of scale-ups were in favour of the government sharing information on their company growth with other government departments or agencies, and 72% were in favour of government sharing this externally.”

But this leaves a minority of companies unwilling to open up their data willy nilly. The report doesn’t offer any guidance on how to deal with these concerns but there should be a way for companies to opt out. If, as the report reasonably suggests, these companies are then better targeted for support, those that have opted out will surely be all too ready to release their data too.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Mazzucato versus Worstall and Westlake

Marianna Mazzucato’s 2013 The Entrepreneurial State is the most influential book on innovation. Although Mazzucato’s arguments in the book and beyond are many and varied – for example, I’m particularly sympathetic to her scepticism of the uncritical financial support for small businesses – the arguments gaining the most traction are the least convincing and potentially most damaging.

In short, Mazzucato’s thesis is that the state has been the key driver of “innovation” and should therefore take a more active role than they currently do. Central to this, is the policy suggestion that government agencies that fund this innovation should take a cut of the profits from the inventions. Two writers have convincingly unpicked this – the Adam Smith Institute’s Tim Worstall and Nesta’s Stian Westlake.

First, on the point about states driving innovation, Worstall cites William Baumol, who makes the crucial distinction between innovation and inventions. In reference to Mazzucato’s observation that the key technologies that went into making the iPhone were state funded Worstall explains: “Baumol’s point is that the private sector could have come up with these technologies, even though it was the state that did. But only the private, or market, sector could have come up with the iPhone.”

To put it another way, the iPhone is more than the sum of its parts. In an excellent article (worth reading in full), Westlake cites the work of Jonathan Haskel, which “suggests that for every £1 that British businesses spend on R&D, they spend £8 on other intangible investments of the sort that Apple used to make the iPod a success: design, new business models, marketing and software development.”

But perhaps Mazzucato’s biggest mistake is one of policy. As Westlake explains elsewhere, in The Entrepreneurial State Mazzucato suggests that “the state should find ways to share directly in the profits of companies that benefit from government innovation spending. A repayment system needs to ‘reward [the government for] the wins when they happen so that the returns can cover the losses from the inevitable failures.’”

Westlake outline three convincing reasons why this wouldn’t work: “it would be nightmarish to administer; it imposes costs on exactly the wrong businesses, creating both a presentational and a practical problem; and it’s worse than an already existing option – funding innovation from general taxation.” Westlake’s last point cuts to heart of the problem. As Worstall has pointed out in a response to Mazzucato’s response to his criticism of her work:

That governments sometimes produce public goods should not be a surprise. That’s what governments are for in fact. To provide collectively those things that cannot be provided through voluntary cooperation. To then complain that government doesn’t get extra rewards for doing the very thing we institute it for seems most odd. That’s why we pay our taxes in the first place: in order to get those public goods. Why should there then be some extra appropriation when all government is doing is what we asked it to and paid for it to do in the first place?

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Size might not matter but age definitely does

It’s ironic that politicians are so obsessed with creating jobs, given that many interventions – such as employers’ national insurance contributions and a politically determined minimum wage – achieve the diametric opposite. Yet it remains a key metric for determining political success and failure, and it drives much that passes for entrepreneurship and enterprise policy.

When it comes to job creation there is a debate about whether small or large businesses contribute more. Those representing small businesses can claim that micro businesses account for around 95% of all private sector companies, while those representing large businesses can counter that despite making up less than 0.1 per cent of the total private sector stock, large businesses account for more than half of all turnover and more than 40% of UK private sector employment.

It’s a complicated debate. Nesta research suggests a small proportion of businesses are responsible for the majority of job growth, with the data showing that “just 7% of businesses are responsible for half of the jobs created between 2007 and 2010.”

Elsewhere, Nesta suggests focussing government resources on supporting what was then “the vital 6%” . But it isn’t obvious that this is the right conclusion from the data. It’s entirely possible that current polices are limiting the size of this so-called vital 6% job-creating companies. If this were the case, instead of focussing on those businesses and sectors already succeeding, the right policy would be the exact opposite: focusing on increasing that 6% figure by targeting companies not in the 6%.

Although the ideal ratio of small to large businesses might be indeterminable, we do know one thing. Size might not matter but age definitely does: we want new businesses. As the Kaufman Foundation explains: “Policymakers often think of small business as the employment engine of the economy. But when it comes to job-creating power, it is not the size of the business that matters as much as it is the age.”

Therefore, politicians and policymakers should want the entrepreneurial process to happen quickly; they should want to make sure regulations don’t inhibit the process of business creation and destruction; they should, to paraphrase the lean startup, want entrepreneurs to start fast, grow fast and fail fast.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

The tax system is the biggest barrier to growth

Outside of academic papers that too rarely see the light of day, most “research” is unremarkable in its optimism about the state of entrepreneurship in the UK. That’s why the RSA’s Growing Pains: How the UK became a nation of “micropreneurs” caught my eye. It paints a stark picture.

The UK, according to the report, has become a nation of micro businesses, while the proportion of high-growth businesses has plummeted: “UK businesses are becoming increasingly micro in size – reducing the overall potential for economic output and future growth, and increasing the economy’s reliance on a relatively small number of larger businesses.”

Since 2000, the proportion of businesses classified as micro (0-9 employees), as a share of all UK businesses has grown from 94.3 per cent of all private sector companies to 95.4%. This represents an additional 1.4 million micro firms and an increase over the same period of 43%.

“At the same time, the proportion of high-growth enterprises has declined sharply, falling by more than a fifth in the majority of regions since 2005.”

Although the number of high-growth firms is expected to rise over the coming years, the report cautions optimism: “performance is expected to remain below 2005 levels in all regions except London”.

So how can we solve the problem? According the entrepreneurs, the tax system (44%) is the biggest barrier to growth – ahead of a lack of bank lending (38%) and the cost of running a business (36%).

Another problem highlighted by the report is that entrepreneurs don’t know what the government is up to:

“Around three-quarters (73%) of small business leaders also say the Government must make it easier for SMEs to access the right information and support for growth. While several of the Government’s recent incentives to support SMEs are designed to address the top-cited barriers, perhaps this information is not reaching the people who need it the most.”

Two polices are put forward in the conclusion to help entrepreneurs. First, “continued reform of the apprenticeship scheme could help micro firms to grow out of this business size category”. Second, “more tax relief like the National Insurance holiday could also pay real dividends.” It would be worth exploring the former in detail (something I plan to work on), but I don’t think another NI holiday goes nearly far enough: Employers’ National Insurance should be scrapped entirely. And no just for small businesses.

Being an entrepreneur is tough. As the report points out, “the majority (55%) of new businesses don’t survive beyond five years.” Scrapping Employers’ NI is the logical place to start.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.