Britain realizes that keeping Indian students away could harm UK’s longer-term economic interests, writes Siddarth Srivastava

On his second visit to India after taking office British Prime Minister David Cameron last week promised to make it easier for Indian students to get visas to attend UK universities.

“There is no limit on the number of Indian students who could come to British universities, so long as they had an English language qualification and a place to study,’’ Cameron said. The British PM said his government will try and remove problems to procure student visas make British education attractive to young people seeking American universities instead.

“If students can get a graduate level job (after successfully completing the course) there is no limit to the amount of people who can stay and work (in Britain) or the time that they can stay at work,’’ added the British Prime Minister.

BDavid Cameron, left, and Bollywood actor Aamir Khan chat with students during the British PM's visit to India this month. Pic: AP;

The Economic Times has quoted Rajesh Agrawal, founder and CEO of Rational-FX, a forex solutions company that employs Indian students to say: “Cameron’s statement is welcome but it needs to be reflected in the regulations for students who come here to study.’’

Cameron’s visit could also help iron out some of the other issues hampering the flow of Indian students to UK. In a comment, the British Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, who accompanied Cameron, said the flow of Indian students to UK universities was restricted due to lack of recognition of taught Masters’ programs in India.

“The Indian government education bodies do not recognize the one-year taught Masters’ degree from UK. Though getting a job in the private sector is easier with the degree, the government sector does not recognize it,’’ said Willetts, adding that the matter was being taken up with India’s human resources development ministry.

India is the second most populous country of origin for foreign students in Britain after China. Cameron’s statements come, however, in the wake of a steep 24% drop in inflow of Indian students, as per data published by the US-based Higher Education Statistics.

According to the figures, fewer than 30,000 students from India were studying at UK higher education institutions in 2011-12, compared to around 40,000 in the previous year. According to the UK Border Agency, the number of student visas issued from India in 2010 was 41,000, which dropped to 32,000 in 2011. In contrast, more than 100,000 Indian students are enrolled in American universities.

One main reason for the drop to Britain is due to amendments to post-study work visa that has removed the option for most foreign students to stay and work for two years after their studies.

Britain could slip into an unusual triple-dip recession after the economy declined 0.3% in the fourth quarter of 2012. In this context, earlier this month, reflecting the political thinking in UK at the moment, British home office’s migration policy head Glyn Williams was quoted to say that Indians widely use student visas to obtain the right to work in the UK.

“Such visas had become a vehicle for abuse,’’ due to which the Cameron government tightened rules, Williams asserted. “In India, UK student visas became known as the ‘marriage dowry’ because female Indian students were able to bring over their partners to work in UK.”

Yet, there is immense pressure from British universities that have been losing students and business that the government should look again at the visa rules. They have highlighted competition from colleges in America, Canada and Australia where work visa procurement is simpler.

The tenor of Cameron’s trip to India was clearly to generate business opportunities for Britain, including the prospects of revenues from exporting education. In recent years India has emerged as the largest investor in UK, while Britain is the largest European investor in India.

The British PM led the largest-ever business delegation by a British leader to any country.  Britain, Cameron declared in India, will offer same-day visas to Indian businessmen. “I’m in no doubt that India is going to be one of the greatest success stories of this century – a rising power in the world. And I want Britain to be one of your partners as you grow and succeed,’’ Cameron said.

It remains to be seen how the issue of visas for Indian students finally plays out. It does seem that the Cameron’s government has realized that short-term political expediency by keeping Indian students away could harm UK’s longer term economic interests.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com