Visa stunts are obscuring the value of global employability

Backing a company in which half the partners have finance doctorates, most of them from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and two partners, one from Stanford and one from Harvard, have won a Nobel Prize, might seem a safe bet.

Like the new Home Office visa scheme, your bet would rely on the notion that these people attended what rankings consider to be the best universities in the world and so their success in business is a sure thing. Congratulations, you’d have invested in Long-Term Capital Management whose failed strategy required a US$3.6 billion bailout in 1998 before the fund was liquidated in 2000.

In an ironic twist a former colleague, William A McIntosh, said: “These guys are among the best and the brightest,” which parrots the announcement of the UK Home Office allowing high potential individuals from the world’s top 50 universities to have privileged access to visas.

It may be that this is a good moment to remind them that the CEO of the world’s largest business by revenue, Walmart Inc, has degrees from the University of Tulsa and University of Arkansas. Neither of these are in the top 50 of any of the ranking systems chosen by the Home Office, but he seems to know a bit about running a big business.

It is frustrating to see the UK government engaging in short-term visa stunts when their approach is as likely to deter or ignore top talent as it is to attract genuine game changers. They would be better advised to build a more defensible and attractive approach that recognises the growing fluidity in global economics as well as the ability of the smartest graduates in the world to come up with creative, mould-breaking ideas.

Missing the point about talent

There is so much wrong with the Home Office decision that it is difficult to know where to start.

The method of defining “high potential individuals” by using a mash-up of university rankings seems fundamentally flawed. These rankings are commercially motivated, have been widely discredited in terms of their methodologies and have no measures which consider the graduate outcomes of students or their longer-term careers.

Confusing the ability to pass exams in a privileged environment with the range of skills needed to successfully lead a corporate business or make it as an entrepreneur is a failure that should put the decision-makers at the bottom of the class.

Going to a top university does not necessarily make you employable and we have seen that many of the world’s most significant businesses have been created by individuals who did not complete their degree.

Richard Branson, Rachel Lim, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates were all college dropouts who went on to become successful by almost any measure. But the Home Office would not appear to define them as being either the brightest or the best.

At a more prosaic level, the paucity of evidence on graduate outcomes is a problem that smart universities are trying to come to grips with, so perhaps it is inevitable that the government has grasped at rankings as a measurement despite their weaknesses.

However, the latest Graduate Outcomes from the Higher Education Statistics Agency tells us that there are 134 institutions, none in a world top 50 ranking, where no students who made a return were unemployed.

They are all relatively small numbers, but, even when you get to larger institutions, Harper Adams University, the University of Buckingham and London Business School do better on this measure than Imperial College London, Oxford or the London School of Economics.

It seems evident that specialist institutions, possibly particularly so in the arts, have no hope at all of reaching a world ranking in the top 50 because the jury is rigged against them. But even in that sphere, talent is as likely to emerge from institutions that are not perceived as being at the top of their specialist tree.

Steven Spielberg didn’t get grades good enough to get into the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts (ranked among the best in the world) and ended up at California State University, Long Beach.

Many have pointed out that this method of selection also excludes any institutions from Africa, Latin America or South Asia, because the rankings reinforce existing hierarchies of privilege and research intensity, but show no interest in graduate employability and career productivity.

To exclude a significant proportion of the world’s graduates simply because their universities may choose to prioritise teaching and learning, internships and job-related skill development over research makes no sense.

Christopher Trisos, director and senior researcher at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said that if the UK wants to play a role in addressing the major challenges of this century, such as energy access, climate change and pandemics, “then they need to be recognising and including diverse skills and in-depth knowledge held by many graduates from universities in developing countries”.

A moment for boldness, not gimmicks

The UK government’s decision seems to betray a level of anxiety that its claims about Global Britain and being open for business are not cutting through. There is a growing tendency to reach for high profile announcements that grab headlines, but which are poorly thought through and do not add a great deal to the chances of attracting the world’s best talent.

They would be better advised to work harder at creating a defensible advantage in ensuring that all international students get premier treatment when it comes to building a rewarding career post-study.

Longer-term visas are inherently vulnerable to competitive action by other countries that can match or beat them. In some cases, there is even the lure of clear routes to citizenship for substantial numbers of international students that has helped Canada build its reputation in international student mobility.

No country has yet set about establishing a competitive lead by building the framework that gets international students a job whether they stay in country or, as most still do, choose to go home.

There is an opportunity to rebadge the UK as a genuine post-colonial power which rejects the brain drain of the most talented students from other countries in return for a genuine sense of collaboration and engagement in building transferable skills and knowledge to grow economies around the world.

This extends to UK graduates being equipped to take up jobs anywhere in the world following their UK degree and having the framework and encouragement that supports this ambition. This may sound a lofty ambition, but it is attainable if universities are equipped with a forensic understanding of international graduate outcomes.

This would enable them to target specific employers by country to provide a pathway to international students securing employment back home and UK students starting their careers as highly qualified expatriates, helping build wealth and prosperity in other countries.

This plays well for UK trade and investment while building UK soft power worldwide. It is a significant differentiator for UK education as compared to all other English-speaking destinations obsessed with post-study work.

The ‘brightest and the best’ will be smart enough to realise that their route to global employability is through a country with the vision and boldness to see that three years means very little in the context of a whole career.

They already know that being global means being networked and interconnected as well as recognising the potential that is apparent as economists describe ‘the Asian century’.

Visa gimmicks will certainly not fool them for long and if the UK doesn’t take the opportunity to develop an innovative new approach, some other country will.

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD. Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge.