Sri Lanka to fast-track visas for tech industry expansion
ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is proposing to fast-track visas for migrant tech professionals amidst a talent crunch and changes to its higher-education laws to develop local talent and attract foreign universities to set up campuses in the island.
"In order to stimulate and enable sustainable growth in the IT-BPM industry, a number of regulatory amendments need to be implemented," the government’s National Export Strategy 2018-2022: Information Technology Strategy policy document published in 2018 notes.
Among the key regulatory reforms is the need to fast-track the current approval process for tech companies to hire foreign professionals, "by introducing necessary procedural reforms for visas at the Department of Immigration and Emigration.
"Initiate a programme similar to the French Tech Visa, a simplified, fast-track procedure for three types of international start-up founders, employees and investors," suggests the policy document.
La French Tech was launched in 2013. The following year 1.5 billion US dollars was raised from 177 deals. In 2017, tech funding was estimated to reach 4.1 billion US dollars from 716 deals, according to CB Insights.
There are other examples that Sri Lanka is trying to follow.
Chile launched a startup programme in 2010 to attract foreign professionals raising valuations totalling 1.4 billion US dollars by 2018. The programme has also seen a surge in higher education enrollment in the Andean nation. Nearly 90 percent of Chilean high school students gain admission to university, compared to less than 20% in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s trade agreements with India and Singapore will ease some restrictions of professional migrants from those countries tied to investments here. Ironically, a vocal protectionist body within the tech industry is opposing these and any relaxation of migrant restrictions. But others see value in being more open (https://echelon.lk/home/wanted-skilled-migrants/).
Sri Lanka’s tech industry is expected to generate 5 billion US dollars in exports by 2020, up from 1.2 billion US dollars in 2017, employing 200,000 people (up from 80,000 in 2017) and launching 1,000 start-ups.
However, several challenges limit growth, including a talent crunch.
"During sector consultations, industry players noted that as many as 18,000 new IT graduates would be needed annually," the National Export Strategy policy document published in 2018 said.
In the midst of a brain drain Sri Lanka’s education system also doesn’t have the capacity to produce enough IT professionals and collaboration with the private sector is limited.
"Graduates have good technical skills, but often are missing soft skills and practical experience.
"Some internship opportunities are provided to students, but state universities favour full-time, lecture-mode education and do not promote working experience during university years.
"This creates a problem with workforce conversion and bringing graduates into the industry," the tech export strategy document notes.
The NES is seeking to address these gaps by proposing changes to the Universities Act of 1978.
"Allow universities to establish companies and start-ups independently and facilitate those companies in individually applying for bids and contracts and in leveraging their research through commercialization and entrepreneurship," it proposes.
The government is also proposing to build regional tech research centres beginning with the universities at Moratuwa, Kandy and Jaffna.
Foreign universities will be allowed to set up satellite campuses in Sri Lanka to enhance advanced skill levels and local research and development capability.
"Universities such as the Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can be targeted through public-private efforts." (COLOMBO, 20 September 2018)