Skilled migrants and talented students are in demand across the world — and governments are stepping up their efforts to attract them, even as immigration becomes a more contentious issue.
A new report on international migration released by the OECD shows a growing number of countries introducing new visa pathways for tech and start-up workers. Competition for overseas students, too, is heating up.
But the research shows that countries can’t always divorce their approach to high-skilled migration from their stance on migration more generally.
More countries are seeing the benefits of international students
OECD countries are opening their doors to international students in growing numbers — but wider immigration policy can have a knock-on effect.
Almost all OECD countries saw increases in the number of student visas issued from 2015 to 2016, including growth of 28% in Canada, 17% in Korea and 10% in the UK.
The major exception to the trend is the United States. The number of student visas granted in the US has declined by nearly 40% between 2015 and 2017.
Part of that, according to Jean-Christophe Dumont, head of the OECD’s international migration division, is because of a recent change to how often Chinese students need to renew their visas. That makes a precise comparison with other countries difficult. “But it’s clearly a decline,” he said, “whereas for most other countries there has been an increase.”
That’s a sign of how, even if governments see less politically contentious immigrants like students as a separate group to asylum seekers and those with fewer skills, potential migrants don’t always agree, Dumont said.
General attitudes to immigration are highly relevant to workers and students shopping between countries, Dumont suggested.
“They may have several opportunities and think about several countries,” Dumont said. “At the high end, it’s not about whether the door is open or closed — it’s fairly open everywhere. It’s more a question of how welcoming the house is.”
Talented tech workers have more options than ever
The battle for high-skilled workers has been a mainstay of immigration policy in developed countries for many years said Dumont.
“Tech is the next frontier where countries are competing for talent, so in the last four or five years some have been very active in this area,” he added.
French president Emmanuel Macron announced a new tech visa for start-up founders, employees and investors shortly after taking office last year. Similar schemes exist in South Korea, Chile, Canada and the Netherlands, according to Dumont.
Most such programs require evidence of financial backing, but some governments are so committed to the talent race that they are offering money to help immigrants develop their ideas. South Korea gives selected new arrivals between €25,000 ($29,000) and €100,000 ($116,000) for their venture, and France offers €45,000 as well as space in an incubator to winners of a competition for would-be migrants.
Beyond tech-specific immigration routes, many countries, including Austria and Canada, have loosened requirements for other high-skilled work programs.
The challenge for countries trying to attract start-ups, Dumont suggested, is aligning immigration rules with other policy. As with students, broader social dynamics affect whether would-be immigrants think they will be welcome in a country.
Potential founders also look at economic policy affecting how likely their venture is to succeed, not just how simple visa processes are. “The question is whether these countries are capable of not only attracting these businesses,” Dumont said, “but whether they provide an enabling environment where they can grow.” — Fergus Peace
(Picture credit: Flickr/Heisenberg Media)