Young people need far more than this new StartUp scheme

Why the government's small loans are hardly the answer to mass youth unemployment.

On the face of it, today’s launch of the StartUp small business scheme for under-25s looks like a good news story in an otherwise depressing economic landscape. The aim is to increase entrepreneurialism and reduce unemployment among young people (currently standing at a disastrous 22 per cent) by offering £2,500 loans and business mentoring.

Whether you imagine a legion of sharp suited young people pitching in the Dragons Den and fighting it out for Lord Sugar’s approval, or the astronomical wealth of the flip flop wearing Zuckerberg, the Prime Minister's idea of "a whole new wave of entrepreneurs who start small but 'think big" is uplifting and exciting.

But there are a couple of problems with this picture. The first is that while entrepreneurs learn a lot from starting businesses, and that learning might well offer real benefits to young people (particularly when compared to stagnating on the dole), the failure rates for new businesses are very, very high. Take this observation from Carmen Noble, writing for Harvard Business School:

The statistics are disheartening no matter how an entrepreneur defines failure. If failure means liquidating all assets, with investors losing most or all the money they put into the company, then the failure rate for start-ups is 30 to 40 per cent . . . If failure refers to failing to see the projected return on investment, then the failure rate is 70 to 80 per cent. And if failure is defined as declaring a projection and then falling short of meeting it, then the failure rate is a whopping 90 to 95 per cent.

The second is that starting a business doesn’t necessarily mean living above the poverty line. Twenty-five per cent of families with one or more self employed member are living in poverty. And in areas of high unemployment, there is evidence that new startups may just displace existing businesses, rather than increasing the number of businesses and jobs.

So, is StartUp some good news in a bad news week? Yes. Is it the answer to massive youth unemployment and stagnant local economies? Not by a long chalk.

The Prime Minister talks to young entrepreneur Lenique Louis on Monday 28 May. Photo: Getty Images

Nancy Kelley is Deputy Director of Policy and Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.