Protectionist UK Restricting Indian Students May Backfire
Limiting the number of students from India or changing rules pertaining to the graduate post-study work visa will make the United Kingdom a less attractive destination for higher education for Indian students. The UK needs to understand that Indian students contribute significantly to the UK economy, not just in the form of tuition fees, but also through their talent and skills.
The introduction of the graduate route in 2021 – a two-year post-study work visa — which gives students an opportunity to work for two years after completion of their degrees — has been one of the key reasons for a rise in the number of Indian students enrolling in the UK universities ever since 2022. The UK has always been a preferred higher education destination for Indian students seeking overseas education options.
In September 2022, 1,27,731 study visas were granted to Indian nationals, this represented a massive increase from 2019 when 34,261 visas were granted to Indian nationals. For a very long, Chinese students have been the most dominant group among the international student community in the UK, but in 2022 they were granted lesser student visas than Indian students (1,16,476 visas were granted to Chinese students in 2022)
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According to estimates, international students contribute GBP 28.8 billion (annually), with Indian students contributing a significant percentage of this amount. In recent months, there have been some signals, that the UK wants to restrict the inflow of international students – specifically, Indian nationals — coming to the UK after net migration in June 2022 to the UK was estimated at 5,04,000. The UK government had intended that it would impose restrictions on Indian students pursuing ‘low quality’ degrees’ and bringing dependents.
During a media interview in October 2022, UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman stated that she opposed an ‘open borders’ policy vis-à-vis India, also saying that Indians comprise the “largest group of people who overstay”. Her remarks were cited as one of the reasons for the delay in signing the India-UK FTA.
After his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 leaders summit in Bali, in November 2022, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that 3,000 Indian professionals between the age of 18-30 would be allowed to work in the UK for a period of 2 years under the UK-India professionals scheme.
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In an interview with The Times (UK), the UK Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch also clarified that the UK could not provide Indian professionals keen to work in the UK, the sort of mobility that it had provided to Australian nationals (under an agreement, Australian nationals under the age of 35 can live and work in the UK for three years). She also said that ‘student visas’ do not fall under the ambit of the Ministry of Trade. Said Badenoch: “…The kind of mobility offer I can do to a country like Australia is not going to be the same kind of mobility offer I can do with a country like India, which has got many times the population.”
According to a media report, the UK is also mooting the idea of reducing the post-study visa to a period of 6 months from 2 years. If individuals are unable to secure a job within 6 months they need to return. This new policy is a brainchild of UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman who believe that this visa was being misused by individuals.
The UK Department of Education has been resisting the recent move, arguing that such a step would make the UK less attractive to international students. Even some of the earlier steps being taken by the British government have been opposed by British universities. A report published in 2021 by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Universities UK International (UUKi) titled “The costs and benefits of international higher education students to the UK economy” report highlights the fact that higher education is one of the UK’s greatest export earners. It also underscores the fact that international students should not be taken for granted.
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While every country has the right to safeguard its interests, the UK needs to understand that Indian students, like other international students, contribute significantly to the British economy. If the UK introduces some of the policies mentioned above, the UK economy will be adversely impacted, and Indian students will begin to look at other options for higher education. It is not just Canada, but also the UAE which could emerge as an attractive higher education destination for Indian students. UAE’s introduction of the golden visa – a residency visa for 10 years – for different categories, including skilled professionals, and its efforts towards attracting international students could make it an attractive destination soon. The Gulf country’s proximity to India as well as the research and entrepreneurial ecosystem could further add to its benefit. A number of campuses of western universities as well as Indian universities are located in the UAE.
In conclusion, the UK and other western countries need to have innovative immigration policies if they want to attract talent. Insular immigration policies driven by domestic politics will be counterproductive for them.
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About the author
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst. He is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.