Recruiting more Indian students could help the UK post-Brexit

With the right visa offering, the UK could eat into the US’ market share, say Sanam Arora and Vignesh Karthik KR

October 10, 2020
Indian students
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The UK and India share a long and complex history, but what has remained a consistent pillar of their relationship are the educational ties between them.

Many Indian prime ministers were students in the UK, and the thousands of Indian students who choose to study in the UK every year return home as friends of the country, playing a vital role in strengthening the bilateral relationship.

However, with the advent of Covid-19, the future of international education is unclear, and there have been dire predictions about how far student numbers will fall this year. Yet our research indicates that Indian students remain keen on the UK – and would be even keener if UK institutions were to reinject aspiration into their engagement with the subcontinent.

We surveyed a representative sample of Indian students who have applied to UK universities for this year’s intake. Several significant takeaways warrant consideration.

First, the opportunity to gain international work experience both during and after studies remains a leading consideration. Over the past decade, the number of Indians choosing to study in the UK nearly halved despite an overall increase in the number choosing to study abroad. A key driver for this was the UK’s removal of the post-study work visa.

Now, with the UK government’s new “graduate route” in place – which allows eligible students to seek work at any skill level for two years after graduation, a spike is imminent. Indeed, 77 per cent of the respondents told us that this was a key reason they chose to apply to a UK university. Nonetheless, in a post-Covid world, where the competition for students has greatly intensified, the UK should consider doubling the duration of the post-study work visa to four years – as recently called for by former universities minister Jo Johnson.

Another factor that is high on Indian students’ agenda is brand value. More than half the respondents rated the global ranking of the university or department as the most important factor in determining their choice of country, and UK universities tend to enjoy a high reputation in India. But value for money is also important, particularly in light of the pandemic.

Indian students overwhelmingly value the physical experience of studying at UK universities, rating the classroom experience, access to infrastructure and experience of life in the UK as their top three regrets should the pandemic prevent them from doing so. Unsurprisingly, this sentiment is also reflected in their strong opposition to online-only teaching, with 80 per cent finding that prospect very unattractive. Interestingly, however, more than half of respondents are open to a hybrid model of online and on-campus teaching – but only if tuition fees are lowered. Students are also open to joint programmes, partially delivered on Indian campuses.

All this points to the conclusion that the disruption caused by Covid-19 can be confined to the short term and that the numbers of Indians studying in the UK can significantly increase.

India’s own education sector, unfortunately, has limited ability to respond to the growing numbers of Indians seeking world-class education and international work experience, so there is unlikely to be any material reduction in long-term outward student mobility.

Furthermore, an increasing trend of students considering alternative destinations to the US has been accelerated by the Trump administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric and its recent announcement – and then retraction – of a requirement for international students to leave the country should universities move to teaching online. Currently, about 200,000 Indians choose to study in the US every year, compared with 30,000 in the UK. If the UK makes a targeted effort to attract even a fifth of that US flow, it could earn the UK nearly £6 billion in 2015-16 prices.

But this is just half the story. The UK’s economic future lies in high-value, knowledge-intensive activities. Severe skill shortages, however, are a limiting factor – nearly half the vacancies in STEM areas are hard to fill. Our survey reveals that almost half of Indian students applying to UK universities have chosen STEM courses. Indians could have a similar impact on the UK as they have had on the US, where their contribution has been integral to making Silicon Valley the technological hub of the world.

At the same time, the bilateral relationship will flourish as people-to-people ties are enhanced and money flows to India via remittances to families back home.

But none of this will happen unless UK universities reconsider their value propositions and the UK government adopts a more student-centric immigration process.

Sanam Arora is the founder and chairwoman of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK (NISAU) and an alumna of the London School of Economics. Vignesh Karthik KR is head of thought leadership at NISAU and a doctoral researcher at King’s College London.

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