London's Silicon Roundabout needs more employees with the right skills. Photo: Getty
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Immigration policy is holding back the UK's tech boom

The government's ambitious project of putting coding on the national curriculum is exactly what UK tech needs. But in the short term, immigration policy is holding us back.

One of the biggest economic challenges facing our nation is the need for more qualified, highly-skilled professionals…Yet because our current immigration system is outdated and inefficient, many high- skilled immigrants who want to stay in America are forced to leave . . . Some do not bother to come in the first place.

Signed by executives from the likes of Google, Facebook and Yahoo these are the words of a letter sent to President Obama last year to argue for the relaxation of US immigration controls. It is striking how accurately they apply to Britain today.

Since 2003 Europe has produced $30bn technology startups; 11 of them were created here in the UK. Russia, the second best performer, produced only five.

From fast-food marketplace JustEat to financial technology giant Markit, the UK tech sector is paving the way for a new era of explosive economic growth. But just as it begins to hit full stride — in London 27 per cent of all new jobs are created by technology-focused businesses — Britain’s tech sector is in danger of being hamstrung by a shortage of skills.

My own company, Quill, has a team of 26 and is currently trying to fill 17 vacancies despite growing over 100 per cent year-on-year. The simple truth is that our education system does not cultivate the right skills to satisfy the demands of our burgeoning tech sector.

In fairness, the government has not been idle in the face of this threat; coding will now be a compulsory part of the national curriculum for UK students between the ages of five and 16.

This is a welcome reform and sees Britain leapfrog some of the world’s leading tech-hubs – including the US. But while the coalition’s long-term efforts to boost the supply of homegrown talent are to be applauded, they are not a solution to the short-term problem. The skills gap in this country is hurting British competitiveness now and, if the government fails to act, it threatens to see the UK fall behind.

It’s frustrating that the steps being made by the Department for Education are being countered by the Home Office’s increasingly regressive position on immigration. There is much talk about which political party the rise of Ukip has damaged most; the truth is that Britain’s technology industry stands to be the biggest victim of its influence on the immigration debate.

As things stand, companies looking to bring talent to the UK from outside of the EU must apply for a specialist Tier 2 visa. In 2013 just 10,179 such visas were granted, considerably below the 20,700 cap. Far from reflecting a lack of demand, such figures are testament to the mire of red-tape around the current system, red-tape that hits small businesses – who lack sophisticated compliance infrastructures – disproportionately hard.

According to research conducted by business intelligence company Duedil and the Centre for Entrepreneurs, companies founded or co-founded by migrant entrepreneurs total 14.5 per cent of all UK businesses and employ 1.16m people around the country.

Unless the government does more to recognise the enormous value that migrant talent offers our economy then those benefiting from educational reforms today may not have a world class tech sector to employ them in a decade’s time.

Britain must rethink its attitude to immigration, because as we cast aside the talented migrants seeking to live and work in the UK, our competitors, from Berlin to Bangalore, are welcoming them with open arms.

In 2012, the US reached its high-skill immigration cap of 65,000 in just five days. Our schools have begun a steal a march on their American counterparts; if our immigration system can do the same then perhaps when the next Google is born, it will be on these shores.

Ed Bussey is the founder and CEO of Quill Content

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue