The UK risks losing its traditionally strong relationship with India if the number of students from the subcontinent entering British universities continues to fall, a senior diplomat has said.
In a stark warning about the UK’s waning “soft power”, Dinesh Patnaik, India’s deputy high commissioner in London, said that the halving of the number of Indians enrolling to study in the UK since 2010 could jeopardise political and economic ties between the two countries.
Speaking at an awards dinner in Mayfair on 22 February, Mr Patnaik said that education had been the “most cementing factor” in the Anglo-Indian relationship for decades, but would be undermined if Indian student numbers in the UK continued to shrink.
“Students and academics play a great role in cementing this relationship,” Mr Patnaik told an audience of Indian and Anglo-Indian business and education leaders.
“If we do not put some pressures on this [situation], we will lose this relationship,” he added.
Mr Patnaik explained that Indian student numbers in the UK had fallen from a peak of about 40,000 to about 17,000. At the same time, the numbers at US institutions had grown dramatically from an already high base of 100,000.
Indian student numbers are “increasing everywhere…even in Germany, which has just crossed 10,000 students for the first time”, he said.
As Indian students spent about £32,000 a year on average while in the UK, Mr Patnaik said “it is Britain who is the loser” from the reduction in student numbers.
However, not having Indian political leaders educated in the UK could pose a greater problem between the two countries in the long term, he added, observing that leaders including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were alumni of UK universities.
“That brought great links between our countries and the diaspora continued it, but if we look at 10 years from today we will not have that,” he said.
“We will have people who come here, do not feel good and do not come back,” he added, saying that both countries needed to “work together to bring the education sector into focus so [that] students feel comfortable here”.
Other speakers at the event, which was hosted by Indian edtech firm SkillTree and communications consultancy Sterling Media, included Sanam Arora, president of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK, who said that the UK needed to be aware of the influence that Indian-born graduates now wielded in business and politics.
“Some of the people who lead the world’s biggest companies, such as Google’s [chief executive officer] Sundar Pichai, are Indians and were students – the Indian diaspora is now students,” she said.