Universities can help London push for more tech innovation, says Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson pushes for London to become "entrenched" in tech innovation and startups

London and its universities need to push for more technology innovation, according to Boris Johnson, who hit out at the government’s tightening of visa controls for overseas students at the Global Universities Summit (GUS) in Westminster.

The Mayor of London aired his views on foreign students at GUS, where senior representatives from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and vice-chancellors from more than 30 countries came together ahead of G8.

Discussing the relationship between universities and economic growth, Johnson said: “When I look at London today, I see a city that is changing very fast – one that is becoming the technology and innovation capital of Europe, if not the world.

“We need to build on the influence of tech innovation. Our politicians don’t bang on enough about it. Breakthroughs are made every day in London, so we need to get the startups going. Universities play a key role here.”

The Mayor pushed for London to become “entrenched” in the idea of technology innovation and startups.

Number of overseas students dropping

Despite Johnson stressing his backing for Prime Minister David Cameron, who “completely has the right policies for higher education in the UK”, he took the opportunity to highlight recent figures which disclosed a 22% decrease in foreign students last year.

Last week, official figures revealed that in the year to September 2012 a net total of 153,000 migrants came to UK shores, down from 242,000 the previous year.

David Cameron has recently said he wants to see net migration fall to the “tens of thousands” by 2015.

Johnson said: “I looked at the recent figures for foreign students coming to this country and I do not regard what seemed to me to be a reduction in those numbers as necessarily a positive economic indicator.

"I think we need to push higher education as a great international export and we need to be even more open in our dealings with other higher education institutions around the world.”

He stressed that “this city is not just promoting indigenous talent", but is "open to foreign talent”.

Johnson’s concerns over reductions in foreign students were echoed by Vince Cable, secretary of state for business innovation and skills, who spoke at the same event at the Royal Horse Guards Hotel.

Cable warned how public “panic” over immigration is causing economic harm to the UK. He explained how overseas students are counted as immigrants under international rules, meaning the number was “easily translated into a flood of immigrants”.

He said: “I was at one of our leading engineering companies a few months ago. I was introduced to the chief engineer, who was making the most sophisticated engines for Formula 1 cars. He happened to be Indian, and he was coming to the end of his visa, and under the existing rules he was going to have to go back to India and reapply for admission to the UK, right in the middle of a high-pressure contract. It was completely absurd.

"But that is the kind of restriction that is introduced to placate public panic that does create economic harm.”

Cable said foreign students are caught up in a "very torrid and emotional" argument about immigration in the UK. He insisted that the government has no cap on the number of overseas students and that there are no plans to introduce one.

"When the number declines, this is a great triumph for immigration control, which is quite absurd and unfortunately is seriously distorting the debate on sensible university policy and, indeed, sensible immigration policy," he said.

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“I just want to make absolutely clear, as far as the government is concerned, we have no cap on the number of overseas students, we don't propose to introduce one,” Cable added.

However, he did note that there is a problem with perception due to government immigration restrictions particularly affecting India, which has resulted in a substantial reduction of Indian students choosing to study in the UK.

“In India there has been a quite vigorous criticism of the UK, largely I think following the debate in British newspapers and treating that as if it was objective reality, which it isn't necessarily,” said Cable.

“In some of the Indian vernacular newspapers the message has gone out that the British no longer want Indian students, which is wrong, but that's the message that has gone out.”

More females needed

Despite sharing the opinion that technology itself is not necessarily important, but using “technology as an enabler is”, Cable drew attention to the need for more engineers in the UK due to a “huge gap in supply and demand”.

Stressing the need for more females to enter the tech and engineering arena he shared the “unusual and worrying fact that half of all UK states schools have no girls studying physics, which means they can’t go on to study engineering”.

Thought leaders representing over 30 countries and 70 universities across the globe met 28-30 May to discuss key themes and policy recommendations that will form part of a Declaration to be debated at the G8 summit. One of the key themes to be included in the GUS Declaration for 2013 is “Growth Through Technology.”

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