The UK should welcome more Indian students
Universities need to take every opportunity to strengthen their ties with India. Indian students’ freedom to study in the UK and the opportunity for joint research ventures put both nations at a huge advantage.opinion Updated: Aug 17, 2017 15:44 IST
The UK Government’s anti-immigration approach has harmed the UK’s relationship with India for long enough, leading to a 50% drop in the number of Indian students studying in the UK between 2010-2015. With new evidence emerging, there is hope that the government’s position is becoming ever more unstable.
PM Theresa May said in India last year that the UK will make changes to the UK’s visa and immigration agreements with India – a vital condition needed for the UK’s business and trading relationships with India to grow – only in return for India’s help in repatriating Indians who overstay their visa. Yet, barely a week after Parliament rose for recess this summer, the UK Office for Statistics Regulation has sneaked out a report saying that we cannot rely on the immigration statistics for international students, which have to be termed ‘experimental’, as they are based on the international passenger survey figures and are deemed to be completely unreliable. The government chose to release the report at a time when Parliament was in recess, when they knew it would not receive proper scrutiny from MPs and the House of Lords.
These statistics are not merely misleading, they are so inaccurate it would be laughable if the issue were not so serious. The figures do not include those who travel through airports after 10pm, when many flights to India depart, among other countries of origin for UK international students. Repeatedly, the government has overestimated the number of international students overstaying their visas, based on these spurious figures, with estimates of total overstaying students being quoted as nearly 100,000. It has made it near-impossible to achieve more reasonable trading terms with India by liberalising our visa system and enabling business tourism.
However, last year, The Times of London revealed that an unpublished official study, based on e-exit checks enforced in 2015, found that in reality only 1.5% of international students overstay their visas. Why won’t the government release those statistics? It is because these statistics would silence Prime Minister May, a former home secretary, and the current home secretary in their stubborn defence of the government’s target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.
The UK Home Office repeatedly refuses to re-introduce visible passport checks when people leave the UK – this one move would enable accurate immigration statistics, including for students, quite apart from being necessary from a national security point of view, in the dangerous world we live in. Little wonder that the May’s reassurances about her government’s willingness to expand UK-India ties fell on deaf ears. Her figures were unfounded, and her economically illiterate policies with regards to international students were halting proper discussions about the future of UK-India ties.
UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox keeps talking about entering into a post Brexit free trade agreement with India, but the UK Government’s anti-immigration approach led to the Indian Commerce and Industry Minister saying, during Prime Minister May and Liam Fox’s visit to India last year, “We aren’t being treated as old friends any longer. It’s a tight professional engagement”.
Close to 450,000 international students who study in the UK, a huge proportion of them from India, contribute over £25 billion to the UK economy. UK universities need to take every opportunity to strengthen their ties with India. Indian students’ freedom to study in the UK and the opportunity for joint research ventures put both nations at a huge advantage.
I am proud to be chancellor of the University of Birmingham, a Russell Group university ranked in the top 100 in the world. We have a number of international and collaborative partners whose contributions are vital to the research we do, raising standards across the board. Indian universities are among our most important partners based on the strength of our research partnerships alone – for example, Panjab University. When the University of Birmingham conducts research, we use a field-weighted citation impact score to determine its impact, and the score is 1.87. The Panjab University score is 1.37.
Yet, when we carry out collaborative research, the impact is 5.64, or three times the Birmingham figure, a similar figure to the impact of our joint research with Harvard Business School. These partnerships are highly effective and transformational, and they must be encouraged.
The only acceptable step forward is for PM May to pledge to remove international students from the net migration figures, and in that one move show India that the UK is ready to build on the vital connection that Britain’s universities and research sector supports.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor Philip Hammond have both spoken of their support for the idea, defying current policy. And just 22% of the UK public agree that international students should be classified as immigrants, according to Universities UK. The USA, Canada and Australia, classify international students as temporary residents when calculating their net migration statistics, and so should the UK.
It would put the Prime Minister in line with the general public, and it would put the UK in a far better position to compete with emerging competitors, such as Canada and Australia, who have targets to increase the number of students from overseas.
We could further enhance the impact that international students have in the UK by re-introducing the two-year post-study work visa for all international students who graduate from UK universities – allowing them to earn some money, pay for their studies, contribute to the UK economy, pay taxes in the UK and further build their generation-long links with Britain.
The future of the UK-India bond will be built on these ties – Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated this himself.
Karan Bilimoria is chancellor of the University of Birmingham and president of the UK Council for International Student Affairs
First Published: Aug 17, 2017 15:44 IST