What’s really putting Indian students off UK universities?

The coalition's policies are as much to blame as UKIP in creating the perception that the UK is hostile to overseas students.

The coalition’s policies are as much to blame as UKIP in creating the perception that the UK is hostile to overseas students

Next week, universities minister Greg Clark is due to travel to India on a mission to sell the UK as a study destination for Indian students.

The visit is a reaction to a 15 per cent fall in the number of Indian students coming to study in Britain, a decrease which has been blamed on tougher immigration policies.

Critics say the clampdown on immigration has created a perception of the UK as hostile to overseas students.

According to the Home Office, Non-EU long-term immigration for study fell by six per cent to 124,000  in the year ending March 2014, compared with the previous 12 months (132,000).

There were notable falls in the number of study visas granted to Pakistani (-2,511, -35 per cent) and Indian (-1,711, -12 per cent) nationals.

Tough new visa rules were announced in 2011 as part of the government’s attempt to reduce net migration from 183,000 to the ‘tens of thousands’ by 2015. Many university vice chancellors expressed anger that students were being counted as migrants, because not all of those who study here will remain post graduation.

In fact, in April to June of this year, there were 37 per cent fewer work-related extensions and 20 per cent fewer permissions to stay permanently. Furthermore, students who do gain permission to stay are likely to make significant contributions to the economy.

Data from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills suggests that international students contribute over £7.9 billion per year to the UK economy and education sector. A plummet in international student numbers last year from 239, 000 to 197,000 was estimated to have cost the economy £725m.

So what is it that is deterring students, especially Indian ones, from coming to the UK?

Earlier this year, the Times of India, which has a readership of 7.643 million, reported that 3 in 5 Indian, Nigerian and Pakistani students studying for phDs in the UK feel ‘highly unwelcome’, and that 19 per cent of EU students would not students would advise their friends not to study here.

The information was taken from an NUS poll, which listed the introduction of landlord checks and an NHS levy as two key reasons behind the dissatisfaction, as well as the visa curb.

As well as difficult visa rules, there are more abstract reasons putting Indian students off. The rise of UKIP, for example, has filtered through to the Indian press and hardly sends a positive message about integration in British society.

The Hindustan Times reported the resignation of Sanya-Jeet Thandi, a UKIP member of Indian origin who left accusing Farage’s party of ‘racist populism’. The same article also emphasised the increasing popularity of UKIP,  describing it as a major player in the 2015 elections.

UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric has mainly been applied to Eastern European migrants, but the figures show that the difficult climate in the UK may be having much further reaching consequences.

Difficult paperwork, negative accounts from their peers and an ascendant far right; it is hardly surprising that students are looking elsewhere to study. The US, for example, has far fewer restrictions.

The loss of overseas students would be a great blow to the UK. As well as economic benefits they have a huge amount to contribute to academic research, especially in scientific fields like maths and engineering. Just as importantly, universities should be places that allow students to mix with people from diverse backgrounds, institutes of cultural as well as academic education.

It will be extremely worrying if the UK starts to fall behind global standards of student mobility in a long term way. Losing the international student pool would damage the reputations of British universities, isolating the country and putting us on shaky footing academically.

So what can be done?

Greg Clark’s visit is a nice gesture, but he may not be the best man for the job.  He stated this year that:

“£9,000 is a fair reflection of the cost of educating students – universities have reason to be pleased with this achievement that David [Willetts] made”.

Despite the government preoccupation with immigration, it is likely that the the rise in tuition fees has also had an impact on numbers of overseas students.

For the academic year 2010-11, there were 39, 090 Indian students enrolled in UK universities. The following year that fell to 29, 900. This drop coincides with the announcement in November of 2010 that universities would be allowed to charge tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year.

Figures released in April of this year showed a dramatic 25 per cent decline in the number of EU students enrolled full time in British universities, indicating the effect that the hike in fees has had. EU students pay the same amount as UK students, but are not entitled to the same loans, making studying in the UK a financial impossibility for many.

The joint effect of the coalition’s policy on tuition fees and the platform constantly given to UKIP’s exclusive ideas is costing the UK its reputation as a leading destination for higher education. It also highlights the threat of the UK becoming increasingly isolated as the obsession with immigration continues.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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