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The success of Britain’s future trade deals hinges on its immigration policy

analysis Updated: Feb 13, 2017 21:08 IST

Supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi wave flags and cheer at a rally in Whitehall, London. (File photo). (AFP)

In recent months we have seen a deeply worrying unleashing of hate crime and vitriol directed towards foreign migrants in Britain, EU and non-EU alike. This stands to undermine the enormous value that foreign migrants bring to our economy and the international reputation of our higher education sector.

Britain has now been a diminishing prospect for Indian students wishing to study abroad for some time, in no small part owing to confusion within the government about the role of its immigration policy.

The latest figures released by the higher education statistics agency show a drop in more than 50% in Indian students coming to Britain since 2010—a decline from 39,090 students in 2010-11 to 16,745 in 2015-16.

Not only is this decline damaging to our research capabilities and the strength of our higher education, it also threatens Britain’s soft power and our ability to secure the free trade agreements that Britain desperately needs. Britain’s position should be unequivocal: We welcome talented people here.

Read | Indian students not driving enrolment growth in UK varsities

As the United Kingdom leaves the European single market, new free-trade negotiations, particularly with the Commonwealth countries, will be of vital importance. However, if British Prime Minister Theresa May is to succeed in building a ‘Global Britain’ she will have to reach for more enlightened ideas on immigration policy.

As we move forward with seeking to secure these new post-Brexit trade deals, I would hope that India will be at the top of our priority list.

India currently invests more in Britain than it does in the rest of the EU combined. According to a report by Grant Thornton, there are over 800 Indian-owned businesses in the UK, employing more than 110,000 people.

Indian manufacturing businesses have a growing appetite to adopt the latest technologies developed in the global manufacturing sector, opening new areas for collaboration with British businesses. A key strand of New Delhi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative is developing high value-added manufacturing in India, creating clear opportunities for partnerships with British companies.

Read | ‘Bright future ahead’ for ties with India: UK minister Alok Sharma

Indian business leaders who have previously viewed Britain as the gateway to Europe will not be impressed by our departure from the EU. London will need to work hard to maintain and grow our current status as a global player in international trade.

This is why we need a revised approach to immigration and a visa policy that reflects Britain’s new priorities. First, I would like to see the cost of two-year visitor visas for Indians cut with immediate effect, to match those currently enjoyed by China.

Moreover, we urgently need to address the current restrictive visa policies for international students, which risk undermining the status of Britain’s world-leading universities.

It is incredible that international students are still included in net migration statistics, and I hope that this will be address as a matter of urgency. In addition, the post-study work visa should be re-implemented without delay.

The time has come for the value brought by international students, and foreign migrants more broadly, to be recognised. Enterprise and global trade go hand in hand with movement of people and ideas.

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The recent announcement by the British Council of the GREAT Scholarships — 198 scholarships worth £1 million each for subjects from engineering, law, management and art and design — is certainly a step in the right direction.

For Britain to continue to be a global hub for business and trade, the current restrictive visa policies and attitudes towards international students must change.

Karan Bilimoria is president of UK Council for International Student Affairs and chancellor, University of Birmingham

The views expressed are personal