UK visa changes driving Indian students away

For Indian students, higher education in Britain is no longer an attractive option owning to tougher visa rules and withdrawal of a post-work visa option. According to consultants and students, the UK is being replaced by Canada and Australia as the preferred destinations for graduate study.

“The number of students going to study in the UK has declined sharply following the changes to the post-student work visa regulations,” said Naresh Gulati, CEO of Oceanic Consultants, a leading overseas education agency. “The number is likely to go down further if corrective action is not taken in the immediate future.

“Other countries such as Australia have gained after making some significant changes to visa regulations that seem to appeal to the Indian student,” Gulati said.

Another education consultancy in New Delhi, Overseas Pvt Ltd [see correction below], confirmed the decline in the numbers of students heading for the UK in recent years. The number of students going to Britain through the agency has halved: for the September 2011 intake, it sent 40 students to UK universities as opposed to 80 in 2010.

Potential size of Indian market is huge

According to a Student Insight report on India, about to be released by the British Council’s Education Intelligence unit, 74% of those considering undergraduate study and 77% of those "seriously considering" foreign study at the time that they were asked, are “beyond making casual enquiries and instead are looking to plan and implement overseas study arrangements”.

The majority had never studied abroad, but were “flexible when it came to choosing countries and institutions in which to study”. The British Council's data were collected between 2007 and July 2012 with some 1,200 responses collected in May-July 2012.

It is an indication of the potential size of the Indian market as a source of foreign students, according to the British Council.

With the British government saying it is tightening its rules because too many students use the study-abroad route as a bridge to migration, the British Council report showed that only 3% of Indian students surveyed said they wanted to move overseas permanently.

Rather, respondents said that career prospects, the quality of courses and wanting the cultural experience of living overseas were by far the main drivers for both prospective undergraduate and postgraduate students.

“The overwhelming majority of students from India plan to return home after studying, with only a very small percentage saying they were thinking of using higher education as a springboard for migration,” the report said, adding to a highly polarised debate in the UK on whether students should be regarded by the government as potential migrants in deciding policy on international students.

Another report from the MigrationWatch think-tank, published on 23 July, found that the rate of potential refusals by the UK Border Agency for student visas was high for India – around 59%, compared to a reported 0% for the US and Canada and an overall average for main source countries of around 33%.

MigrationWatch suggested that a ‘credibility test’, which would ascertain English-language proficiency and intention to return to the home country, would help reduce the number of “bogus” applications.

Not being able to work is a major deterrent

After changes to UK visa rules, students can no longer remain in the country to work. This, according to Indian students, is a major deterrent.

“The fee for UK universities for a one-year postgraduate course is around £11,000 (US$17,000). An equal amount is needed for stay and food,” said Shrin Raghavan, a final-year student at Delhi University.

“It makes no sense to go to a UK university as it would be financially impractical to repay the student loan if I am not able to work there for two years post-studies.”

Raghavan, who would have liked to enrol at the London School of Economics, chose to go to Monash University in Australia. “I can work in Australia for two years after completing my studies," she said.

In Canada, a post-study work permit can be issued up to a maximum of three years, depending on the length of the study programme that the student completes.

Students also said that the visa changes by the UK made them feel unwelcome.

“For the UK, international students have become a means of income. They do not want anything to do with you once you have paid the fee,” said Anirudh Chail, who is scouting for countries in which to pursue an MBA.

Other countries filling the gap

According to Sikandar Singh, an independent career counsellor, the UK “cannot compete in a market where countries like Canada, Australia and others offered post-work visas.

“The UK needs to understand that a majority of Indian students belong to the rising middle class and for them higher education is a means to procure better jobs and career opportunities,” Singh said.

Australian universities have witnessed a surge in applications from Indian students, whose number has shot up by 16% and is expected to rise further. More than 32,500 student visa applications by Indians were filed from July 2011-March 2012, as compared to 28,067 during the corresponding period last year, according to latest official data.

Australia has been trying to streamline its international higher education sector, which was hit in recent years by a strong dollar value, tough visa norms and racial attacks on Indian students.

A new student visa processing system has been introduced, which a number of Australian universities recently signed up for with Australian Immigration.

The new system will allow students with certificates of enrolment from participating Australian universities to be treated as low-risk applicants when applying for student visas. The change was made to decrease visa waiting time and to help minimise tedious requirements regarding financial matters.

According to Naresh Gulati, the initiatives taken by the Australian government have ensured that false applicants are weeded out, while creating a positive environment for genuine students.

“This is an internal matter that the UK government needs to tackle. We don’t see any role for the Indian government,” Gulati said.

* It was incorrectly stated in an earlier version of this article that the company contacted was Study Overseas, when in fact it was Overseas Pvt Ltd. Study Overseas processes far larger numbers of international students. University World News apologises for the error.