Talk of fair play is not enough

David Cameron can court India’s students all he likes, but the UK’s immigration policy is hardly bowling them over

February 21, 2013

David Cameron pulled out the stops ahead of his trip to India this week.

In interviews before he flew out, he revealed that he was a fan of the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, enjoyed “pretty hot” curries and - most shocking of all - may have given the impression that Indian students were not welcome in the UK.

If Tendulkar were a bowler rather than a batsman, this would be the moment for a gag about who is the real master of spin.

India has long had ties to the UK, and the shared history clearly remains significant for a country being courted by the whole world.

It’s a point the prime minister was keen to play up. “My message is that I think Britain and India can be one of the great partnerships of the 21st century,” he said.

Cameron is lucky that his hosts don’t share his idea of an ‘incredible welcome’ or he might have had to queue overnight at a police ­station to register

“There’s the history, there are the family ties, there’s the culture, there’s the language, there’s the love of things like cricket.

“But there’s an amazing future if we team up our universities, our businesses. I don’t think [there is] any limit on this relationship.”

To hear him put universities so high in the list of the countries’ shared interests - above even business - is a clear indication of how important education has become to India.

It is a country with a population of 1.2 billion, half under the age of 25, and an exploding middle class. Now its government wants to more than double the higher education participation rate in the next 10 years.

Yet if the UK and its universities do indeed enjoy a “special” position in Indian hearts and minds, many would argue that they do so in spite of our best efforts to foul it up.

Which is why Cameron chose to acknowledge the damage done during two years of immigration policy swerving about like a well-bowled googly. “I think we haven’t perhaps communicated this properly,” the prime minister said. “We need to take that message to talented young people in India and say: ‘If you want to make that choice, Britain will be incredibly welcoming’.”

Cameron can count himself lucky that his hosts don’t share his idea of an “incredible welcome” or he might have found himself queuing overnight outside a Delhi police station to register his presence in India.

The ins and outs (if you’ll excuse the pun) of the UK’s immigration policy and the impact on students has been much reported. But in our cover feature, Simeon Underwood, academic registrar at the London School of Economics, argues that what has been missing from the sector’s lobbying campaign has been the human element: the stories of the people behind the statistics, and a basic empathy with their predicament.

Cameron’s rhetoric suggests that the penny may finally have dropped about the potential damage that shoddy immigration policy can do not just to universities but, much more widely, to our wider relations with one of our most important economic allies.

But actions speak louder than words, and the treatment of individuals who had sunk their hopes, dreams and savings into a British education during episodes such as the crackdown at London Metropolitan University will live long in the memory.

Unless a sense of fair play is restored, talk of a relationship with “limitless” potential will do little to alleviate the feeling that the UK has put itself on a sticky wicket.

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