Making Use of the Graduate Entrepreneurship Visa

In February 2012 the Immigration Minister, Damian Green formally unveiled the Graduate Entrepreneur Visa, “with up to 1,000 places for students working on world-class innovative ideas who want to stay and develop them”.

Recognising that international students regularly show more entrepreneurial flair than their UK counter-parts, I, along with many others, was hopeful that this would unleash a wave of entrepreneurship, with graduates delivering real economic growth and employment opportunities across the country.

Unfortunately, it seems that the visa has yet to live up to its potential. From its launch on 6th April 2012 up until 31st December 2012, only 27 of the 1,000 visas available were issued.

What has caused so few applications? In short, it seems that universities have been too nervous to promote it. Up until recently each applicant had to be endorsed by a participating Higher Education Institution. In endorsing applicants for a Graduate Entrepreneur Visa, universities commit themselves to ongoing immigration monitoring and confirm that they have assessed that the applicant has a world-class business idea. In a worst-case scenario where the successful applicant breaks the terms of the visa, or monitoring requirements are not fulfilled, it is the institution that could face penalties up to and including the removal of their Highly Trusted visa issuing authority.

Universities that did nervously agree to participate were each invited to write their own internal processes for how they promote and monitor successful applicants. This has inevitably led to 76 unique processes, where some universities are actively promoting the visa to all international students; some are promoting just to students who already engage in enterprise activities; and some that only share information if students explicitly request support (though how students know who to ask is unclear).

The effectiveness of each university’s strategy seems dependent on which university department was tasked with writing the process. Unsurprisingly, academic registrars (or other departments that manage student visas) seek to minimise risk and as a result act very conservatively; whereas entrepreneurship departments and business incubation centres are far more entrepreneurial and seem to have designed far more open processes that encourage more applications.

Dwain Reid, Entrepreneurship Project Officer at Kingston University comments “from the onset, the entrepreneurship department worked closely with the international department to design the process in the belief that the more graduate entrepreneurs that can benefit from the scheme, the better. As a result, we have supported 9 applicants in the past year, and hope to make full use of this year’s allocation“.

However, the overall failure of participating Universities to issue even a twentieth of the available visas in 2012 has not stopped the Home Office doubling the allocation this year. In March 2013, the UK Border Agency announced that for the 2013/2014 year, 900 places are available for graduates of any subjects; 1,000 places are available for MBA graduates; and 100 places are available for UK Trade Investment to endorse overseas graduates.

At some point between November 2012 and April 2013, the Government also loosened the requirement for ideas to be ‘world-class’. The visa is now open to graduates with a “genuine and credible business idea”. While this relaxation of the requirements is welcome, the decision to double the number of visas opens up interesting questions regarding the evidence base that underpinned the increase – why mark out MBAs for special treatment? Do MBAs start more businesses than other graduates?

Perhaps the most important question however, is whether the relaxation of the ‘world-class’ requirement is enough to encourage Universities to make use of the total 1900 visas this year. If Universities are still bound by risk-averse institutional bureaucracies, I’m concerned that come April 2014, the 900 general visas and the 1,000 MBA visas available will again have gone to waste.

What is needed to ensure this unique visa scheme is used fully?

Firstly, there is a need for a concerted effort from the enterprise education community, student body and all supporting stakeholders to jointly lobby Universities to ensure they are all registered as participating institutions; are committed to making full use of their allocation each year; and are pro-actively promoting the visa scheme to all international students.

Secondly, with the allocation of 100 graduate entrepreneurship visas for UKTI to endorse overseas graduates, the Government has already taken a significant step in directly supporting graduate entrepreneurs. I believe that before the UKTI looks overseas to ‘headhunt’ top graduate entrepreneurs from top 40 business schools, as announced in December, they should actively look to identify and support the talented international entrepreneurs already in the UK.

Finally, perhaps as a more radical suggestion, if Universities do not step up to promote and endorse visas, it could be argued that responsibility should handed over in full to the UKTI, with promotion of the scheme delivered through various grassroots student networks. With the opportunity to be supporting 2,000 startups a year, each with the potential for significant economic growth and job creation, the Government should be doing all that it can to ensure that this innovative and unique visa scheme is used to maximum effect – helping talented international students remain in the UK to start and grow their businesses.

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