Home Secretary Amber Rudd has just announced a consultation around new rules for student visas in the UK, together with changes to the resident labour test. The goal is to make an immediate impact on immigration - some 167,000 overseas students arrive annually. But could the net effect also be an uplift in skilled staff for the data industry?
According to Rudd, the intention is to stop the flow of students attending courses that are unlikely to lead to employment or which are being run by low quality colleges. Two factors have driven up the number of students from abroad - competition among academic institutions that can earn significant income from overseas candidates and the fact that students are able to bring their families across to the UK during the course. She plans to tie this right, as well as post-study work visas, to the standard of the degree and college they attend.
The last time the Government changed visa rules for overseas workers, it had negative consequences for the data industry. By restricting the availability of visas for Indian immigrants, it stemmed the flow of skilled maths and stats graduates who had been filling the recruitment gap in the UK. As everybody now knows, the result was a significant shortfall and problems filling posts in the burgeoning data and analytics fields.
But it is just possible that the new policy might have the opposite effect - allowing more knowledge workers from overseas to gain visas and increasing the long-term flow of qualified job candidates. If Rudd wants only to give visas to those with abilities that can not be sourced domestically, then STEM-qualified individuals are a good place to start. They are in short supply in the UK, which means data-driven businesses can legitimately argue they need to employ them, thereby passing tighter resident labour tests.
While that labour supply will support the continued growth of data and analytics over the next three to five years, academia should recognise the opportunity presented by introducing data and analytics-oriented courses, from degree level via MBAs and up to PhDs. Already, a growing number of universities have introduced these, but there is huge headroom. And by any standard, these are likely to be considered high quality. After all, the Government has the digital economy - and the data which drives it - at the heart of its growth strategy.
It takes a mimimum of three years to graduate, of course, and some of those new qualifications have only just been introduced. But it is an enticing prospect that a new generation of students will be attracted to the UK to study high-quality courses that end up yielding candidates for the data industry. If more of the students on those courses start to come from the UK as well, then everybody wins. Not something that can usually be said of Government policy…