May fails to placate Modi on UK student visa rules

The thorny issue of Indian student visas to study at universities in Britain overshadowed talks at a meeting between Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi – an indication of how international student flows can have an impact on wider relations.

The main aim of May’s first visit to India since becoming Britain’s prime minister was to underline the importance of non-European Union trade and investment relations in the wake of the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum in June, but May and Modi were unable to agree on relaxing rules on student visas for Indian students wanting to study in the UK.

Indian officials had widely flagged up in the weeks before the visit that visas would be an important issue, hoping for a relaxation of tough UK visa rules. They conceded at the end of May’s 6-9 November visit that, from India’s perspective, differences over UK visa regulations were among the biggest challenges facing the bilateral relationship.

At an ‘India-UK Tech Summit’ attended by both prime ministers and organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry and India’s Department of Science and Technology in New Delhi, Modi stressed that education was vital for Indian students and it would define the country’s engagement in a shared future with the UK.

“We must therefore encourage greater mobility and participation of young people in education and research opportunities,” he said, speaking before his bilateral meeting with May.

The number of Indian students enrolling in UK universities went from 68,238 in 2010 to 11,864 in 2016. In 2012, while May was Home Secretary, the UK scrapped a policy of allowing overseas students to work for up to two years after graduation which helped many Indian students pay off substantial student loans, and which particularly affected applications from the country.

In turn, in her speech at the Tech Summit May said India and the UK should take “even more advantage” of their mutual links and “put not only trade and investment, but also the exchange of ideas, innovation and technology, at the heart of our ambitions”.

But the Joint Statement issued at the end of bilateral discussions only stated the two prime ministers had agreed that visa regimes need to be “as simple and efficient as possible for students, businesses, professionals, diplomats and officials and other travellers, including facilitating short-term mobility of skilled personnel between the two countries”.

The two leaders noted that the UK remained a popular destination for Indian students and that “these students add to deepening the India-UK partnership across all sectors of bilateral engagement”.

‘No cap’

As for the actual numbers, May used an oft-repeated phrase of previous UK prime minister David Cameron and his ministers that there was no cap on overall numbers of international students studying at recognised education institutions in the UK and that Indian students would continue to be welcome.

The statement mentioned that the “UK Home Secretary had recently announced her intention to consult on changes to the UK student visa regime”.

The statement also mentioned 198 new ‘GREAT scholarships’ for Indian students to study at 40 UK universities. Over the past two years some 750 scholarships were offered to Indian students for undergraduate and postgraduate courses at UK universities.

“More could have been specified in the joint statement, but I think the post-Brexit imperatives should be clearly understood,” said Sachin Chaturvedi, director general of the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a think tank of India’s External Affairs Ministry.

He was referring to May’s need at home to take a hard line on immigration and visas, which was a major issue for UK voters during the Brexit referendum.

India’s disappointment was clear from a press briefing by India’s Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. “I did raise the issues of visa fees, student visas, and how Indian students no longer prefer to go to UK universities, which was the top priority earlier, because of the nature of visa regulations and requirements they have to go through,” she said.

According to Sitharaman the UK visa regime discourages many Indian students from going to Britain and they now prefer other destinations such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Bogus institutions

Sitharaman said that during her discussions with UK Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox, who was a part of May’s entourage, she was given the impression by Fox that any crackdown on Indian students was “probably because they get themselves enrolled at institutions which turned out to be spurious”.

“So, his case was that if there is a decline in numbers, it is because those students went to less than credible institutions... but we recorded our concerns that the number has fallen,” she added.

Other Indian officials said the link between bogus institutions in the UK and Indian student visas and a British focus on Indian students being more likely to overstay their visas did not help the atmosphere of the talks.

Bogus institutions were a matter for British regulatory authorities and many Indian students had been duped and lost money as a result, they said. Frequently, Indian consular officials abroad treat such students as victims and have in the past called for protection for overseas students fleeced by such institutions.

During her bilateral meeting with Modi on 7 November, May sought to link the issue of ‘illegal’ Indian immigrants with Modi’s demand for more student visas. She said the UK was willing to offer more visas if India agreed to bring back some of its nationals who had overstayed.

“The British side were unable to give us any statistics that showed that Indian students are more likely than students of other nationalities to overstay,” said an Indian official.

Post-Brexit trade

The objective of May choosing India as her first destination for a bilateral visit was to highlight their common interest in a free trade agreement. Britain has been pushing to begin talks for a comprehensive trade agreement with non-EU partners which can be implemented as soon as the UK exits the EU.

But it was clear the visa issue would be a sticking point. “India made it clear that trade is not a one-way street and that Britain, too, must open its doors to Indian service providers,” Indian officials said.

Sitharaman said: “The UK seems to want access to the Indian market, the UK seems to want Indian investments, but the UK does not seem to want Indian talent... This is not an impression or perception that the UK can afford to have.”

Earlier in the week, May’s government had announced new visa rules for professionals – anyone applying after 24 November under the intra-company transfer category would be required to meet a minimum salary threshold of £30,000 (US$37,000), up from £20,800 at present.

This visa is widely used by Indian IT companies investing in Britain. Indian officials said the announcement of change just before May’s visit was “ill timed”.

Sitharaman said India had expressed concerns at the changes.

UK’s disappointment

May’s stance and the tone used to deliver the message disappointed UK universities too.

Dominic Shellard, vice-chancellor of De Montfort University in Leicester in the UK, tweeted: “PM Modi crystal clear that he sees international student mobility as crucial to the prospering of India-UK business links. We should listen!”

India-born Lord Karan Bilimoria, chairman of Cobra Beer and chancellor of the University of Birmingham, UK, said for Britain’s future outside the EU “no trade deal is of greater importance for Britain than the one we could strike with India”.

However, “no deal will be struck without the appropriate concessions on immigration and the movement of people. Trade is not simply about tariffs; trade and immigration cannot be looked at in isolation,” Bilimoria said.

Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, spoke of a “lost opportunity” in a commentary published by Reuters.

“How can we say 'free trade' and not be willing to teach their [India’s] children even as they help make our [UK] universities economically viable? What has led us to this madness?” Burnett said.

He added: “We already join together on tech and innovation. We need to build on that, not risk it. And the irony is that if we reject the greatest gift – that of understanding and trust – we also risk trade.”

It was left to Jo Johnson, UK minister for universities and science, to extol the importance of UK-India research and higher education ties including emphasising importance of the exchange of students between India and the UK.

Johnson said India-UK collaboration on education, skills and innovation was the “strongest pillar” of the UK-India relationship. He announced new Newton Fund science and innovation partnership projects worth £80 million – half of that amount to be provided by India.

They include a £16 million programme to support biotechnology research and development products to clean up industrial waste, and a £13 million joint research programme on anti-microbial resistance.

Johnson said in a statement that the UK government is “continuing to look at opportunities to expand this partnership to include funding for social science and humanities programmes”.