(Bloomberg) -- The government’s migration crackdown risks damaging UK higher education institutions and setting back the country’s ambitions to be a leader in science and technology, according to an influential British entrepreneur.

Recent steps by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to make the UK less attractive for overseas students will lead to a university funding shortfall and a reduced pool of talent for British employers, Ewan Kirk, founder of quantitative hedge fund Cantab Capital Partners and a former entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Cambridge said. The measures will chafe against the premier’s ambition to make Britain a hub for high-growth industries such as biotechnology and artificial intelligence, he said

“For all the guff and bloviation about making the UK a scientific superpower, you’ve actually got to do something that’s going to make that happen,” Kirk, also a non-executive director at defense firm BAE Systems, said in an interview. “The corollary of being a scientific superpower is presumably that you need a lot of scientists,” he said. “We’re not going to grow them all internally, so would it not be good to get some from outside?”

The prime minister is under growing pressure from the right wing of his ruling Conservatives to clamp down on both legal and illegal immigration after total net migration to the UK hit a record 745,000 in 2022. Facing an election that’s likely in the second half of this year, Sunak’s government last year announced a slew of migration-cutting measures, including a bar on most overseas students bringing their dependents with them.

The government is now “making the student offer as unattractive and unwelcoming as they possibly can,” said Kirk, who founded a software company when at university. That chips away at the UK’s current advantage that the draw of British universities means it can attract educated immigrants “when they’re mobile, bright,” rather than having to do so when it’s harder because they’re older and settled, he said. 

A spokesperson for the UK Home Office said in an emailed statement that the country’s “points-based system rightly prioritizes the skills we already have in the UK, while attracting the talent our economy needs to grow.”

Kirk said that reports that some universities have told staff to lower the grade requirements for overseas students show the UK is already no longer as attractive for top students as it once was. “You’re not attracting the best people, but you’ve got to keep attracting people because you can’t afford to run your university without them,” he said, referring to foreign students.

Since the UK’s coronavirus restrictions ended, businesses have struggled to hire staff in skilled roles from welding to software engineering. This has driven up salaries, adding to the UK’s inflation headache. 

The government allowed businesses to recruit skilled workers more cheaply from abroad where the need was most dire. But economists believe that thousands of immigrants living in the UK as dependents of students and workers are also filling lower-skilled roles in sectors such as retail and hospitality.  

While he said he’s concerned about high-skilled migration, most relevant to his former role as head of European quantitative technologies at Goldman Sachs, Kirk said the UK will still need lower-skilled migrants to staff roles in institutions such as the National Health Service, unless reform is made a priority.

“You’re not going to get a great NHS without people sweeping the floors and pushing around trolleys,” Kirk said. “You’re not going to get that without having migration.”

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