Fifteen years ago, Rajesh Agrawal arrived from India at Heathrow Airport with just £200 in his pocket.
Today worth an estimated £90 million thanks to the foreign currency trading firm that he founded in 2005, the 39-year-old is now London’s deputy mayor for business.
On Wednesday (22 February), Agrawal was one of several Indian-born Britons honoured at a glitzy awards bash at a Mayfair hotel. Others included the Labour MP Virendra Sharma and fellow London School of Economics graduate Sanam Arora, president of the National Union of Indian Students and Alumni UK.
All of them spoke passionately about how universities were vitally important to India’s relationship with the UK, forming the bedrock of Britain’s relationship with a nation of 1 billion people.
As another British Indian winner – Dame Asha Khemka, principal and chief executive of West Nottinghamshire College Group – put it: “India made me, Britain enabled me.”
Most of the amazing success stories coming out of India involve higher education, with UK universities quite often playing a part at some point in the journey. In turn, it is UK business, politics and education that benefit in the end from the skills learned by Indians in this country.
With so much goodwill towards the UK and its education system in the room, the tragedy of the UK’s current situation became clear. Enrolments from India are down 50 per cent since 2010 at a time when more students than ever are going abroad. Home Office statistics out this week suggest that the situation is now even worse.
Dinesh Patnaik, India’s deputy high commissioner to the UK, even raised the prospect that Germany could displace the UK as the top destination for Indian students – it now has 10,000 student enrolments a year, with the number rising, while UK admissions have sunk to about 17,000, down from 40,000, he said.
With Indian students spending about £32,000 a year on average while studying the UK, “it is Britain who is the loser”, he added.
So why are numbers sinking when they should be rising? Theresa May led a trade mission to India in November, with several vice-chancellors invited to help spread the message that the “brightest and best” were welcome to study, while ministers have repeatedly said that there is no cap on international student numbers.
However, May’s decision to scrap the post-study work visa in 2012 when she was home secretary has clearly had a devastating impact on UK universities’ ability to recruit from India.
Without the guaranteed opportunity to work for two years after graduation – often in a fairly low-paid capacity – Indian students are going to places where they can: Australia, Canada, Germany and the US.
Without some international work experience, Indian graduates might struggle when they return home to join the labour market, said Arora.
“There are a billion people in India, so students know they need some global work experience to make them stand out to employers,” she told me.
“Students are consumers these days, and they demand a good education, but also the opportunity to supplement their education with work experience,” she added, saying that most Indian students had no intention of staying in the UK in the long term.
“Indian parents are very emotional,” an Indian academic told to me at the event.
“If they feel their children are not properly appreciated as students, then they will find somewhere else where they feel they get the right amount of respect,” he explained about why they were going elsewhere.
While many at the event – which was organised by SkillTree Knowledge Consortium, an Indian ed-tech firm that aims to audit 2,000 higher education institutions via a system of student satisfaction scores by 2020 and business and communication consultancy Sterling Media – felt that Anglo-Indian relations were still strong, several speeches raised concerns that the immigration status of Indian students in the UK was a problem, and that the UK did not fully recognise how important India was to the UK, where its firms employ more than 110,000 people.
“If there is one country that the UK should open borders with, it is India,” said host Alpesh B. Patel.
“There is no other country where people have done more, established more, had greater honours and done more for their host country than India,” he said.