Closing the UK’s graduate route will hit Indian enrolment and UK growth

The global battle for talent means attracting students who simply can’t and won’t choose the UK if post-study work is curtailed, says Sanam Arora

December 12, 2023
People wait in line at terminal 2, Heathrow
Source: Alamy

When, in 2019, the graduate route visa was brought back to the UK, Indian students and alumni, as well as the wider Indian diaspora, felt that our two countries would finally deepen their partnership for the shared global good, with international education at the core of an ambitious, strategic vision.

As India entered its 75th year since independence, we hoped the future would not be shaped only by the past but by the talent and purpose of a new generation facing global challenges together.

The British high commissioner to India, Sir Dominic Asquith, said at the time that he was “delighted that numbers of Indian students coming to study in the UK are constantly increasing, having doubled over the last three years…This exciting announcement will help ensure that the UK remains one of the best destinations for students across the world”. Priti Patel, who was then home secretary, added that the move demonstrated the UK’s “global outlook and will ensure that we continue to attract the best and brightest”.

As chair of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU), I’m determined to hold on to that vision no matter how turbulent the political waters have become just four years on.

After all, international students – of whom Indians are the biggest cohort – bring in net annual economic benefits of £30 billion to the UK economy. For every international student, two jobs are created. Indian students subsidise UK research through our tuition fees, and Indian graduates form a significant cohort of the brilliant people who conduct that research, contributing towards the government’s post-Brexit aim of becoming a “science superpower”. Now is not the moment to damage a rare sector with the potential for even greater global success.

Yet over recent years, debates about appropriate levels of immigration have been fraught in the UK, as elsewhere. As political pressures mount, the government has announced that it has asked its independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the graduate route, on top of changes impacting students’ ability to bring their dependants to the UK. Sadly, bearing down on international students is being seen, once again, as the one lever government can pull to reduce the numbers; as the committee’s own chair, Brian Bell, has warned, “The net migration discussion comes down to where can we cut numbers just to get the number down, even if we think that the route we’re going to cut is exceptionally good for Britain.”

I find it peculiar and disappointing that we treat students as numbers to cut, rather than as consumers propping up many of our towns – or humans with dreams and aspirations, or, frankly, exceptional talent that can choose to go to the US, or Canada or Germany or wherever else it wants. Indians are crucial to the success of Silicon Valley; the UK needs to enable them to make a similarly transformational contribution here, too.

Last week, in the wake of the government’s announcements, we at the NISAU found ourselves once again explaining to officials what, to our mind, is very, very simple – that the ability to access post-study work is one of the most important requirements of Indian students, not least because international work experience offers them a chance to pay back some of the expensive loans they often take out to pursue UK study in the first place. Few want to stay forever; the majority want eventually to go back home to their families, friends and communities, in a country that is itself full of ambition and opportunity.

Current Indian students in the UK are understandably deeply concerned about the latest developments. Our advice is that, as far as we understand, there will be no change to the graduate route for them. We are told that the government is committed to the scheme, but we agree with Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, that the government must publicly put to bed the suggestion that this visa will be scrapped.

We at the NISAU have three more simple asks of the UK government. First, ensure that the MAC review engages with us and the wider higher education sector so that the lived experiences of international students are properly understood. Second, remove international students from the net migration figures: by definition, students are not immigrants because they are in the country for only a short period. And third, go hard after unscrupulous recruitment agents, who often sell immigration and not education.

The world’s big battle today is for talent. Our universities need to draw the best from all over the world if they are to maintain their global pre-eminence. That means attracting students who simply can’t and won’t choose the UK if the graduate route visa is diminished.

Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Sorabji, Tagore, Patel, Naidu: all form part of an unparalleled legacy of Indian study in the UK. As Indian students and alumni who follow in their footsteps, we have a responsibility to learn from them and contribute both to our adopted study destination and our own nation-building process back home.

NISAU fought a seven-year battle to help restore the graduate route visa to the UK. Students and the higher education sector can rest assured that we will fight again for Indian students, who bring so much to UK higher education and who deserve to be honoured with the respectful and welcoming policies that will enable them – and British higher education – to thrive.

Sanam Arora is founding chair of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union, which this month launches in Parliament its annual Achievers programme, showcasing the extraordinary impact of UK higher education on and through the lives of exceptional Indian graduates.

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