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We need to rethink how we encourage and measure international student entrepreneurship

  • 21 February 2023
  • By Professor Nic Beech

This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Professor Nic Beech, Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University, Commissioner on the International Higher Education Commission, Chair of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment and Executive Board Member of University Alliance.

The International Higher Education Commission (IHEC), chaired by the Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP, will develop recommendations for a new International Education Strategy 2.0 in partnership with the higher education community. Among the issues it will address are future student number targets and how the UK can remain competitive in its international offer to students.

Arguments in favour of international students are well rehearsed. A HEPI report in 2021 estimated that international students are worth almost £26 billion net to the UK.  Articles in the Guardian and Financial Times recently reported on university leaders’ fears for the UK economy if numbers of overseas students are reduced and how key Government departments oppose restrictions and also that the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, is resisting cuts and has described our universities as a ‘hugely valuable’ export success.

I would argue that the success that Gillian Keegan describes goes further than our traditional understanding and is also about universities’ role in nurturing international entrepreneurship which has a key role to play in opportunities for growth in the UK.

We know that many students who travel overseas to study also have the drive to be self-starters in business. While we don’t know how many start-ups overall in the UK have been set up by international students, there is international evidence that we should be collecting the data more systematically. According to a study undertaken by the National Foundation for American Policy, one-quarter of US billion-dollar start-up companies had a founder who first came to the US as an international student. While we need more comprehensive national data on this in the UK, there is evidence from across the sector of the contribution of international students through entrepreneurship. 

For example, Ravi Ranjan, a student from India who graduated from Aston University received huge industry praise for his mobile app for sole traders and was shortlisted as a finalist in the West Midlands Tech Awards 2021 as ‘Digital Start-up of the Year’. The company also won ‘New Business of the Year 2022’ at the Birmingham Business Live Awards.  Davies Okeowo, another Aston student, from Nigeria founded a successful business management software company that gives micro businesses access to business insights. Davies also helps entrepreneurs raise funds and grow their businesses as an Account Manager for the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership Growth Hub.

An example from the University of Hertfordshire is a student from Lithuania who co-founded and is CEO of a biotech start-up which is focused on chemical safety. A student from Nigeria who studied at the University of South Wales has used his engineering expertise to create a successful business developing new manufacturing methods.

Carolina Avellaneda, from Columbia, studied an MA in Environment Development and Policy at the University of Sussex and founded Bubblelife with her partner – a biodegradable packaging business for the personal care market. It was a runner up in the Start Up Sussex Social Impact award and they have been mentored by Sussex Innovation to bring their idea to commercialisation. 

There are several examples of international students going on to set up their own businesses from Sheffield Hallam University. They include Ali Sayadi Zadeh who graduated in 2016 and set up 

a business that exports fertilisers and lubricants, Denny Song who founded a company specialising in South Korean food and Javier Galloway who created a new platform that helps customers review individual menu items.

At the University of Leeds, Spark, a community which supports innovators and entrepreneurs has numerous examples of international students setting up their own businesses. Computer science students Hrisyan and Slavyan Mladenov set up their business, Mladenov Brothers Ltd, which is a web design and development agency. Beibei Du from China set up a Leeds-based packaging sourcing consultancy and Gigi Prongprapa worked to build her business ‘Suda’s Taste Ltd’ to deliver high quality seasoning mix fresh from Thailand to the UK.

There are other examples from Coventry University – Kaveri from India set up My Pooja Box, an online-only brand offering home decor, gifting, festive and religious products and Pratik Shelar, also from India, who started two businesses related to film.

16% of Middlesex University international students go on to start their own businesses in the UK. Examples include a student from India who has set up his own import/export business with plans to expand and hire more staff, a US student who set up Walk and Talk For Your Life in East London – an exercise programme to reduce loneliness and improve fitness in older people. An Italian student from Middlesex was chosen in 2018 to develop a film promoting the local area and now runs his own film company and a Japanese student has created her own jewellery business specialising in sustainable materials.

To remain competitive and consider how we can encourage businesses to be created in the UK we should look at other competitor countries which are taking a very different approach. The message from Australia is clear – they are looking for entrepreneurs. In Australia, you can start a business on an international student visa or connect to start-ups that have already launched. Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth have emerged as promising hubs of tech innovation. In Ireland, colleges increasingly offer academic courses in entrepreneurship, start-up workshops and summer programmes for students seeking to start their own companies. Ireland has also introduced new start-up entrepreneur visas for non-EEA citizens. In Germany, student visa holders are not allowed to start a business, but if they have residency, start-ups receive significant funding. There have been some estimates that have suggested that start-ups could equate to around 1.6 million jobs in Germany. Germany was ranked number one in Europe for start-ups by NimbleFins in 2019 which could be attributed in part to the fact that Germany has a well-educated workforce (86% of adults have at least an upper secondary education). 

International students contribute in many other ways to the economy and our public services, putting their advanced technical and professional skills to work. In addition, they make a broader contribution through business start-ups not just for the immediate economic value but for the value chain and international trading they engender and the jobs they create. 

The UK counts students in the general migration figures, which means there is a tendency not to recognise the enormous proportion of students who come to the UK, study and then leave or the broader social and economic value created by the entrepreneurial people who come as students and continue as value-creating members of our business community. Counting students in the general migration figures may have unintended negative consequences for economic growth and business start-ups, and this is increasingly being debated in businesses, universities and policy circles, and around the world. There would be benefits in bringing this question into public discourse.   

Before talking about restrictions and closing doors we urge policy makers from all parties to work with the sector and the IHEC to identify opportunities and obstacles to encouraging entrepreneurship in the UK and develop a vision for the future that includes international students as entrepreneurs. It is clear that other countries are ahead of the game in adopting this growth agenda, but we have the opportunity to learn from best practice and to gather data systematically on international start-ups which contribute to UK growth.

  • On Tuesday 14 March 2023, HEPI and London Higher are launching Living and Learning in London: What the 2022 HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey tells us about student life in the capital. Details on how to book a place are here.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    While all this may be true, should we be encouraging / bribing entrepreneurial students from all over the world to come to UK universities to do undergraduate and post graduate degrees?

    Does this then become an international race to the top or the bottom?

    Some of our most successful entrepreneurs never went to University. What is the evidence from the controlled trial that indicates this is the best way to grow our economy?

    Should we not be taking more of a world view to best benefit the human race rather than greedily putting Britain first ?

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