Student visas – Another brick in the wall?

The recent visit to India by new United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May on trade and diplomacy matters brought into sharp focus her increasingly strident stance on Indian students overstaying their welcome.

This comes on top of a decline in the number of Indian students coming to the UK from around 40,000 in 2010-11 to 18,320 in 2014-15, which Indian authorities blame on an earlier decision to curb post-education work visas.

Added to this is the growing resentment about the more onerous skilled migrant regulations that have been imposed on Indians, albeit with some sweeteners thrown in.

The implications of this stance are profound. Firstly, it imperils attempts by the UK to negotiate any sort of comprehensive trade and investment deal with India.

Both economies are strongly service oriented. The service economy, including especially its higher value components, are ultimately about people’s skills, knowledge and idea flows through mobility. A protectionist approach to students and skilled migration would surely be inimical to a trade deal.

As eloquently put by Priyanka Tikoo, editor and bureau chief of the Press Trust of India, it appears that the policy approach from the UK is about “looking for more trade but less people”.

Second, the UK is potentially at risk of losing students who may turn into valuable skilled migrants, addressing skill shortages and helping to power its economy. According to Deloitte’s 2015 The Value of International Education to Australia report, graduates likely to migrate after their studies would improve gross domestic product or GDP per capita by 0.5% per capita or A$8.7 billion billion (US$6.6 billion) in GDP.

To this one can add the myriad of flow on and indirect positive effects. In the UK there are very significant shortages of engineers, for instance. Surely, much food for thought here?

Employment matters

A recent survey by QS, What matters to International Students? Focus on India, looks at what matters to Indian students when studying abroad. It found that 53% of respondents indicated that obtaining employment was a key reason. Presumably this includes not just employment back home but in the host country as well. Thus, moves to send students back home would fly in the face of the motivations for study abroad.

In addition to these considerations one must consider the fact that students living abroad are members of a knowledge diaspora, who through their connections in host and home country become important players in sharing knowledge, ideas, research and promoting commercial and cultural ties.

This is a 'win-win' for both countries. There are any number of studies that highlight the important role of diaspora in promoting trade and economic growth in home and host countries.

Turning inward

There is also the messaging that is tied up in all of this. It could be perceived that the UK is not as welcoming to Indian (and presumably other) students as before and that populist, protectionist forces have taken over. Brexit, when allied with the Donald Trump presidential victory in the United States, reinforces the perception that a number of countries are simply turning inward.

It is with baited breath that we wait to see what the US attitude to international students is. Certainly the Trump attitude to immigration generally and to trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership does not bode particularly well.

In the longer term, one could see a redefining of the global education landscape. This could include a number of possibilities. The first is that of student ‘diversion’, that is, that Indian students simply go to other parts of the world with an equally strong tradition and history of accepting students, to the extent that these countries remain open. Germany, Canada and Australia spring to mind.

Second is the possibility of emerging hubs becoming recipients of larger numbers of Indian students. Potentially, China and Malaysia fit the bill, opening the possibility of new region-based student and economic agreements, as distinct from global ones.

Third, there is the possibility that institutions from the UK may accelerate the development of transnational education to tap into the large Indian market, which would then put further pressure on the Indian government in terms of market liberalisation.

Finally, there is the possibility that the Indian government and the private sector may choose to ramp up investments at home in higher education. However, this would place immense pressures on budgets and physical capacity and challenge India’s regulatory and quality assurance mechanisms.

All in all, we are at a crucial fork in the road when considering the future of globalisation, including in particular human movement.

Anand Kulkarni is principal adviser and consultant in Planing and Performance at Victoria University, Australia, and author of the forthcoming book, India and the Knowledge Economy: Progress and perils.