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Britain must scrap its stand on tough visa norms for Indian students

The UK-India partnership is of enormous value, particularly if the UK is leaving the EU — its closest trading partner accounting for over 50% of its trade, and around 20% of UK trade covered by Free Trade Agreements because of the UK’s membership of in the European Union. Supporters of Brexit should think carefully about these perceptions among countries like India.

analysis Updated: Jun 26, 2018 07:36 IST
visa policy,uk visa
Indians protest against allegedly unfair VISA rules, outside UK Parliament, London(PTI)

As a former international student in the UK, I welcome any move towards greater openness concerning bright students hoping to find opportunity through higher education in the UK. But last week, the UK Government moved to make it easier for students from eleven countries — not including India — to study in the UK. As the Founding Chairman of the UK-India Business Council, I was shocked. By inviting students from other countries far more readily than those from India, the UK Government sends a clear message that they do not value Indian students. The timing of this announcement by the British Government and the Home Office is unfortunate, given that it is UK-India Week.

The UK-India partnership is of enormous value, particularly if the UK is leaving the EU — its closest trading partner accounting for over 50% of its trade, and around 20% of UK trade covered by Free Trade Agreements because of the UK’s membership of in the European Union. Supporters of Brexit should think carefully about these perceptions among countries like India.

Yet, Liam Fox, secretary of state for international trade, said that the decision behind the visa change needs to be considered in terms of the wider policies around immigration and trade, and the bigger picture. He said, “Not everything is about Brexit. Some Indian students overstayed their welcome.” This is astonishing and insulting.

Let’s take a look at the bigger picture. Currently, the UK does more trade with Sweden than India, the fifth largest economy in the world. By tightening restrictions around Tier 2 visas for business tourists and skilled workers, and now excluding India from the first positive steps towards increasing international students in years, an FTA with India is a pie in the sky. This latest insult compounds the UK Government’s mistakes, such as failing to offer two-year multiple entry visas at a reduced price of £85 to Indian business visitors and tourists, despite those being available to Chinese visitors. The price for India remains £388.

India is the fastest growing major economy in the world, overtaking the UK economy in terms of size, and also has one of the fastest growing international student markets, with half the population under the age of 25. Furthermore, the demand for studying abroad from countries like India is increasing at 8% a year. But by including international students in net migration calculations in the UK, and classifying them as immigrants, it sends out a hostile message to those wishing to come here to study.

The government must undo this. It would send the world, particularly India, a positive message that the UK is open to talented foreign students.

This hostile approach leads to the UK losing out on the global race to attract international students to competitors such as the USA, Canada and Australia and other European countries. While the number of Indian students has more than halved in the past six years to 16,000 in the UK, Canada has now reached the 100,000 mark, and France has a target to attract more international students from India. In order to truly compete, it must re-introduce the two-year post-study work visa, enabling international students to work in the UK after graduating, earn money to pay for their education, make lifelong connections and contribute to the Exchequer.

The Government also needs to do much more to change the perception of the UK among prospective international students. Indian students in the UK make a significant contribution to life at British universities, with international students contributing over £25 billion to the UK economy annually. It must extend these new Tier 4 Visa application rules to Indian students.

India has always been one of Britain’s closest allies, and I have faith in the new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, changing our approach to immigration to be more compliant, despite having inherited hostile immigration policies from Amber Rudd and her predecessor, Theresa May. He has already made positive steps by seeking an independent review into the Shortage Occupation List, to allow more Indian IT workers into the UK.

It is a shame that the inaugural UK-India Week has been marred by yet another economically-illiterate move by the British Government that renders the picture of future UK-India relations even cloudier than before.

Lord Bilimoria is the Founder & Chairman of Cobra Beer and President of the UK Council for International Students. Views expressed are personal.

First Published: Jun 26, 2018 07:36 IST