Boris is right on Indian student visas – but can he persuade the Tory immigration sceptics?

Boris Johnson says Indian students should have their visa applications to study in the UK processed far quicker - but can he persuade his Tory colleagues?


Boris Johnson has been singing all the right tunes on his six-day visit to India – on trade, on culture, and, this morning, on students.

Ahead of a meeting with university vice chancellors in Delhi, the London Mayor said Indian students should have their visa applications to study in the UK processed far quicker.

The Standard reports:

Mr Johnson said that while the UK does not appear to have a problem attracting Chinese students, many young Indians are being put off applying to British universities by the application process for student visas.

The Mayor of London said Indian students should be able to apply to work in the UK after they finished their degree, as he warned many of the brightest college-leavers were heading to the United States instead.

His comments come after the government controversially made it more difficult to study in the UK amid fears that bogus colleges were being used as cover for migrants who had no intention of studying a proper course.

All well and good from Boris – charming his hosts, selling London, making the case for Indians to study in Britain – but without a change of course from the government, pandering to the anti-immigration right with the migration cap, the rhetoric will struggle to become reality. Theresa May’s policy is storing up long-term trouble for the UK.

The Economic Times of India last year warned:

The change in work-visa rule after completing a degree in the UK has caused concern among prospective Indian students. Many feel that the opportunity to work in the UK was the incentive that attracted them to invest in education overseas.

However, students should realise that the true value of studying in UK is to gain a competitive edge in the Indian job market, which faces a skill gap in many growing sectors.

Meanwhile, UK businesses have cited the government’s increasingly strict immigration policies as a drag on growth, and UK academics have also warned of the consequences of Tory immigration policy.

As general secretary of the University and College Union, Sally Hunt, wrote on Left Foot Forward:

The changes to student visas as part of the government’s clampdown on immigration risks making the UK a less popular destination for foreign students, which, based on today’s figures, would be bad news for UK universities as they struggled to adjust to huge government funding cuts.

It is not just universities and our thriving educational export sector that would suffer though. In June, the home affairs select committee warned government plans to limit visas could result in a £3.6 billion loss from the British economy.

The government might think soundbites around immigration play well to a domestic audience, but they risk doing real harm to our universities and our reputation on the world stage. UK universities are enriched by the students and academics that come to this country to study, carry out research and share their knowledge.

Politicians must be very careful not to restrict academic access or make ill-judged comments that give the impression UK universities are closed for business.

With Times Higher Education noting:

Middlesex University, where about 40 per cent of non-European Union students come from India, said it expected a 50 per cent year-on-year decline in students from the country for the 2011-12 academic year, costing it millions in lost fees.

The decision by the government to close the existing post-study work route that gives students an opportunity to stay on in the UK after graduation is being blamed… The uncertainty is leading more Indian students – for whom the ability to work post-graduation is a crucial factor – to opt for study in other English-speaking countries instead…

Terry Butland, deputy vice-chancellor (international) at Middlesex, told a seminar held by the Westminster Education Forum in London on 26 July that “something has to be done” about the damage to overseas recruitment.

He said the 50 per cent hit to Middlesex’s Indian student recruitment, which he said could cost the institution £5 million, was being driven by the belief that the post-study route was completely closed.

Indian students often rely on borrowed money and need to be able to demonstrate to lenders that they can work after graduating to pay off their debt.

Gavin Jones, head of immigration at law firm Blake Lapthorn, which represents students and universities on visa matters, said: “Anecdotally we are hearing that there are fewer applications to UK universities from overseas students because of the uncertainty. Students from outside the EU pay very high fees and they are not going to do that if they cannot be sure they can move into employment.”

He added that the government risked huge damage to education exports, and warned that sector forecasts of a 25 per cent real-terms growth in overseas fee income by 2013-14 now seems optimistic.

Boris’s words are great – but it’s the disastrous actions of May that count, that deter, and that cost.

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