Tapping offshore startup talent

James Riley
Editorial Director

There is a large potential pool of entrepreneurial talent within the international student community that gets overlooked in this country because they don’t work rights.

And that is a shame. Because while we don’t need to roll-out a red carpet and organise a ticker tape parade to convince some of these international overachievers to stay in this country, a modest tweaking of student visa classifications could deliver excellent long-term returns to the economy.

I have written previously about this strange circumstance. First, as a reflection on how weird it was to sit in a room full of bright young (startup) things at a University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) entrepreneur function and realise that almost none of them were Asian.

Tapping offshore startup talent

And then at the muru-D function last week, the unveiling of Telstra’s terrific accelerator program. The brightest international students are not allowed to apply for the excellent muru-D program because they don’t have work rights, which is a prerequisite for the program. This is a serious bummer.

Most of the students studying computer science at Australian universities are from overseas. In fact, most of the students studying STEM subjects are from overseas. We want the best of these kids to stay here and be productive. And we especially want the kids who show an interest in starting a business to stay.

But there remains massive obstacles to either utilising the brightest of these kids in the workforce as they study, and huge roadblocks to the young entrepreneurs among them to founding a startup business.

We need to find ways to identify these students – these overachievers and potential founders – and to find new ways to give them love. That might mean giving them working rights as undergraduates. It might mean greater flexibility to step out from study to work full-time for a period in their chosen field.

Currently these international STEM subject students can’t go out and work in the startup community. They can’t raise money and they can’t found companies here as students.

These students are a whole class of potential founders who are not being tapped. And they are potential founders who already have deep roots into their predominantly Asian home markets.

When we talk about engagement with Asia, in the tech sector, this is what we mean.

International student visas has been a vexed issue in recent years. The tertiary education export market is not on its knees quite yet, but it is under significant strain. This is broadly the result of a high Australian dollar, competition from online education delivery mechanisms, and a heavy-handed tightening of student visas by the previous government. No doubt, Australian universities are doing it tough.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has committed to working closely with Education Minister Chris Pyne and Trade Minister Andrew Robb on broad strategies for international student visas.

It is to be hoped that Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has a seat at that table also, and the minister responsible for ICT industry development (and the minister holding the purse strings to Australian Government VC funding.)

International students who have an entrepreneurial drive have a unique value-proposition as contributors to the Australian economy.

The early signs are not especially bright. On the upside, Mr Morrison’s speech last week to the Migration Institute of Australia’s national conference placed huge importance on ensuring the vitality of the tertiary education export market. On the downside, Mr Morrison seems fixated on the downside.

“We believe international students should come to Australia with the bona fide intention to study in some of the world’s finest education institutions, not as a backdoor to a permanent migration outcome,” Mr Morrison told the MIA conference.

“We’re interested in selling education, not visas and I know that is the widespread view not only within the migration agent community but within the international education sector as well,” he said.

“We want to compete on education, not a comparison test on visa classes.”

Later in the address, Mr Morrison says “We will not support measures that attempt to use study in Australia as a back door to permanent residency but we will always promote high quality education services and a high level of integrity in the program,” he said.

Which is fair enough. We don’t want study used as a backdoor to permanent residency.

But we certainly do want excellence in a student’s technical field of study, and entrepreneurial and business excellence to be used as a backdoor.

In fact we want these best and brightest student to have a front-door welcome into work rights and permanent residency.

This is not a straight-forward policy to develop. But it certainly needs to be debated. It needs to be on the agenda as one of the many, many steps that we can take to build and nurture the innovation culture in this country, and the innovation industry relationships we have with our Asian neighbors.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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