David Cameron’s positive messages to Indian students have been greeted as a sign that he may be abandoning his “neutral” position in the battle between government departments over the issue of student migration, but others have warned that student numbers from the country will continue to decline without a change in policy.
During Mr Cameron’s trade mission to India this week, where he was accompanied by seven university heads, he repeatedly stressed that there was no cap on the number of Indian students who could come to the UK, and that they could work in the country after their degrees if they found graduate-level jobs.
His intervention has been seen as significant, given the tussle between the Home Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills over the message sent to overseas students by the government’s drive to reduce net migration.
Don Nutbeam, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton and one of the delegates on the trip, said there was “absolutely no doubt that there has been a change in tone from the prime minister”.
He added: “Whereas his position could have been described as neutral in the past, he appears now to have clearly understood the importance of presenting an unambiguous message to the world about the excellence of UK higher education.”
The visit follows news that the number of Indian students in the UK dropped by 23.5 per cent in 2011-12, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
The coalition has ended the automatic right to work post-graduation, introduced tougher language requirements for non-university students, and set an overall target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” by 2015.
Accompanying the prime minister was David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who told Times Higher Education that Indian media coverage of these changes had been “incredibly negative and probably did do us some damage” in terms of applications.
But the UK sector could recruit Indian students with “confidence” because Mr Cameron had made it clear “that there is no cap and there are no plans to introduce a cap”, the minister said.
Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University and another member of the delegation, said that the trip represented a “big step forward” for the government.
The UK is the former colonial power in India and the visa changes had been reported in that context, he said, so it was crucial to “avoid any implication that the UK has anything other than an equal partnership in mind”.
However, Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central and a critic of the government’s stance on international students, said it was “not enough for the prime minister to repeat the Home Office mantra that there is no cap on student numbers”.
“If that is to mean anything, students should be taken out of the government’s net-migration targets,” he continued.
Daniel Stevens, international students’ officer at the National Union of Students, welcomed the prime minister’s “nice rhetoric”, but added that there had been “no concrete changes in policy”.
Neil Kemp, visiting fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London, said that while Mr Cameron’s message was “important”, it was “insufficient”.
He predicted that Indian student numbers would continue to decline in the short term unless government policy was changed.
Post-graduation employment was a “crucial factor” for Indian students, who were aware that their chances of getting a job that pays at least £20,000 a year - the new threshold for obtaining a post-study work visa - were “very slim”, he added.