Ewan Kirk
Ewan Kirk is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence within the Department of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. IBTimes UK

Throughout economic history, technological innovation has been key to the success and competitiveness of national economies. In a 21st-century world dominated by rapidly progressing technological capabilities, this is no less true today.

Earlier this year, a report published by Tech Nation highlighted the economic potential of Britain's tech ecosystem. Impressively, Britain is the leading European country for tech investment, second only to the United States and China globally.

More recently, speaking at the London Tech Week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has articulated his ambition that the British economy should take advantage of the opportunities that technological innovation brings.

Specifically, the PM referred to the government's leadership as the most important reason innovators should choose to operate in Britain. Sunak explained that the government are building a "pro-investment tax regime" and "making our visa system for international talent one of the most competitive in the world".

Moreover, the government have declared the objective of cementing Britain's status as a science and technology superpower by 2030. Published this March, the UK Science and Technology Framework is a policy paper which sets out the government's approach to achieving this objective.

Key to the success of any science and technology superpower is the nurturing of talent and the effective allocation of skills. In a global economy where entrepreneurs and skilled workers move across borders to find the best employment, this means engineering the institutions of society to attract talented individuals that can drive technological innovation forward.

Section four of the Science and Technology Framework sets out the government's approach to talent and skills. A key sub-point of section four is establishing a "competitive advantage in attracting international talent to the UK" by the year 2030. Crucially, this entails making Britain a magnet for "the world's best talent across all career stages".

However, despite what the government have set out on talent and skills, according to Ewan Kirk, the Entrepreneur-in-Residence within the Department of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, the government are ignoring the "elephant in the room" in the tech sector. That is the need for skills and talent in STEM fields as well as the migration crackdown.

Kirk is also Chairman at Deeptech Labs, Executive Chairman at Cardeo, and a Board member at BAE System.

Commenting on Sunak's speech at the London Tech Week, Kirk acknowledged that the ambition of retaining Britain's "position as a global Tech Capital" is "a good aim". However, in Kirk's view, it will be "impossible" to reach realise this ambition if "there isn't enough talent in the country to support the industry's growth and maintenance".

Therefore, Kirk advocates that the government should encourage more STEM students and graduates in Britain. Covering a wide range of courses taught at British universities, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Specifically, Kirk advocates the following changes:

  • Firstly, international students studying STEM courses should only pay the domestic tuition fee charged by British universities, with the government making up the shortfall.
  • Secondly, all border restrictions should be dropped for individuals and their families who possess either provable STEM skills or a STEM degree. This would allow STEM students to stay and work in Britain after graduation.

In Kirk's words: "We need to advertise the UK as a place where you can get a first-class STEM education and where there are opportunities to then use those skills once your studies are finished."

Current undergraduate university tuition fees are capped at £9,250 for English students studying in Britain. Therefore, this is the amount that international students in STEM courses would pay if Kirk's proposal was implemented.

Under the current system, if you are an international student intending to study an undergraduate degree in STEM subject at a British university, the costs are much higher. For example, if you wanted to study for a BSc in Computer Science at the University of Southampton, you would be faced with fees of £25,000 per year as an international student.

Fees this high could act as a barrier to some of the brightest applicants to come and study here in Britain at leading STEM institutions. For example, the University of Southampton is one of the British universities which is set to benefit from new investment in the development of safe and trustworthy artificial intelligence.

If fewer international students choose to study in Britain, they may be less likely to consider British employers after they graduate, applying their skills elsewhere in the world.

It is unclear how much it would cost the British government to lower the tuition fees for international students in STEM courses. This would be contingent on the number of students that choose to study in Britain.

However, with the current economic climate of high inflation and pressures on the cost of living the likes of Kirk could face an uphill battle in persuading a conservative government to commit public money to reducing the costs of higher education for international students.

Kirk acknowledges that "immigration is a hot topic politically and the Government is terrified of alienating voters". However, if the government is serious about making Britain a tech superpower, the need to "welcome STEM graduates and those with valuable expertise" is urgent, he explains.

Therefore, Kirk argues the measures he suggests would be "well worth the investment" in the long term, helping us "ensure we have the skills and talent to maintain our tech crown".

Why has Kirk called for these measures?

Tech firms and start-ups are increasingly dumping London as a base, with the challenge of sourcing skills one "overlooked" factor making Britain less attractive. Kirk points out that "almost 95 per cent of employers looking for tech talent have encountered a skills shortage over the past year."

Crucially, Kirk explained: "We're seeing companies choosing to open up more offices in mainland Europe instead of scaling up in London."

Highlighting the difference between Britain and France, Kirk explains that "last year, France saw tech funding increase by eight per cent, whereas ours in the UK fell by 20 per cent". Moreover, according to Kirk, Paris is "putting London to shame".

One reason for this is the French Tech Visa programme, which Kirk describes as "one of the most welcoming". The French tech Visa programme provides Talent Passport residence permits across three categories, including startup founders, tech talents, and international investors.

In contrast, Kirk argues that "one big area that could be improved is the UK Visa process", with companies facing a "very difficult, time-consuming and drawn out" process to bring in overseas talent. Whilst improvements have been made for "young, fast-growing companies (scale-up Visas)", Kirk argues that "more needs to be done to streamline and simplify the process to get workers in, and fast".

Improving the Visa process is one way of making Britain more attractive to tech giants like India, where STEM graduates have the potential to come to Britain and contribute to technological innovation. Moreover, Kirk believes: "If someone has the relevant skills, such as a degree in a STEM subject, and a UK company has offered them a job, we should be facilitating their move to the UK." As stated above, facilitating STEM workers should go as far as allowing their families to come and settle in Britain too.

If the government were to act on Kirk's proposals, how exactly would they be formulated?

Firstly, what counts as provable STEM skills for somebody who does not have a STEM degree? For example, in terms of work experience. Kirk says that is one for employers to decide. In his words: "If they interview someone who they feel has the skills they need and want to hire them, then I would say that is evidence of 'provable' skills."

Secondly, what does and does not count as a STEM degree? That might sound like an obvious question. However, British universities offer many joint-honours degrees which bring together subjects from the arts and the sciences. On this question, Kirk emphasised the "need to think about the big picture", considering "what is going to be best for the industry, for businesses, for the economy, and for wider STEM success".

For example, whilst economics might be listed as a STEM subject, if an international student chooses to study politics, philosophy, and economics (often referred to as PPE), is that sufficiently "STEM" to qualify international students for the domestic tuition fee? Clearly, politics and philosophy do not classify as STEM, and on courses like PPE students may have the option to focus on the arts over the sciences in their module choices.

Arguably, if it were implemented, Kirk's proposed tuition fee reduction should only apply to international students who select exclusively STEM degrees, rather than degrees with a STEM element to them.

However, considering the bigger picture as Kirk suggests, one subject in the arts which may be more important for the world of tech going forward could be philosophy. For example, undergraduate courses like physics and philosophy bring together the sciences and the arts. This is a course offered at multiple British universities, including the University of Oxford.

Crucially, the technology is not separate from the philosophical. Indeed, the history of physics is interwoven with the history of philosophy. The present development of artificial intelligence also brings up the linkage between the technological and the philosophical.

For example, the consideration of ethical ideas which inform the purpose, engineering and regulation of AI is one way in which philosophy has an important role to play in the world of tech.