Sanam Arora, president, National Indian Student and Alumni Union (NISAU) UK, talks about the change in visa rules, impact of Brexit on Indian students, cost of studying in the UK and more. Excerpts from an interview.
Is the tier 4 pilot visa scheme a good move?
While we are supportive of the scheme in general, the key aim seems to be around enabling students to find employment opportunities by giving them a slightly longer time period. This addresses the wrong issue.
The issue is that students are discriminated against the moment they disclose they will require visa sponsorship. Many students time and again lose out on job offers that they could otherwise achieve much earlier on, often during the course of their studies – purely because they need a visa.
Employers seeking to hire non-EU students need to pass a Resident Labour Market test, under which they need to demonstrate there is no one in Britain or the EU who could do the job advertised. The test makes it extremely difficult and costly for employers to take on international students, and these things are the crux of the issue.
There are reports that British PM Theresa May is set to scrutinise the number of student visas being granted to UK university applicants in a fresh attempt to reduce immigration. What’s your take on this?
The UK’s visa policies such as the closure of the Post Study Work Visa and issues such as the closure of hundreds of bogus colleges, which has impacted thousands of innocent students, have already affected the country’s image as a study destination. However, despite all of this, it is testimony to the brilliance of the UK’s Higher Education system and the India-UK relationship that students tell us they still think of the UK as their top preference for higher education, and they are very sad to be unable to choose the UK due to its post-study employment issues. The impact of further scrutiny depends on the way in which this scrutiny is conducted. Mass movements such as closure of bogus colleges that completely neglect the impact of, and in fact lead to victimisation of innocent students will have very negative effects on the UK’s popularity. On the other hand, if the scrutiny is conducted in manners that place the student and his/her well-being at the centre of the initiatives, then I am confident the Indian student and alumni community will in fact support all such initiatives.
How do you see the proposed visa policies for Indians?
Existing policies for Indian students are the same as the ones for other international students. A visa is granted for the duration of studies with a period of a few months on top - the very popular Post Study Work visa has been removed.
Proposed policies include a STEM visa and a Commonwealth visa (to be started with Indian students), proposed by former Mayor of London Boris Johnson. Both these visas will be very welcome moves, particularly the latter, which will be favourable for Indian students. Essentially, this is a two-year post study work visa but only for Indian students. It is similar to a visa type that the NISAU has been raising requests for over the past few years. The key thing Indian students want is this post study work visa. A global education, no matter how world class it may be, is incomplete without global work experience. The UK is fortunate to be blessed with exceptionally high standards for both. The latter is of particular interest to Indian students, and the defining factor between the choice to go to the UK or Australia. In fact, British Council’s research has shown that in the long term, only 3% of Indian students actually want to settle abroad - the rest want to return to India.
Should there be a Commonwealth visa, aimed at helping Indian students?
Absolutely! Indian students are the second largest consumers of the UK higher education sector. The Chinese also have a special visa, so why not Indian students? We have fully supported the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in this, and hope the new London Mayor Sadiq Khan continues to push for it.
What steps are British funding agencies and varsities likely to adopt when it comes to Indian students, especially after Brexit?
The number of scholarships on offer has gone up over the recent past, particularly as universities try to promote themselves in the wake of an increasingly unattractive environment for Indian students. I don’t think this has had the desired impacts though – numbers continue to fall and have fallen by 40% over the last few years. It may be likely that we will see the number of scholarships rise for a little while and stabilise over the medium term. Over the medium to long term as the practical impacts of Brexit are realised these limited scholarships will have to be divided over the EU and International student base, potentially leading to fewer overall scholarships or reduction in some other shape. Diversity in the student base is very important, and we may see the diversity requirements increased for EU students post Brexit, thereby tilting the scholarship division in their favour.
How will the cost of studying in the UK be affected after Brexit and other govt policy decisions?
This is difficult to predict, but it is likely to positively impact students - as it has done since Brexit. The political uncertainty caused by Brexit is going to dominate how sterling performs over the medium to long term. Over the short term, the fall in its value is a positive thing for all international students as it significantly reduces the cost of education and living for them.