In every job interview he attended in the UK, there was one question Aakash Brahmachari dreaded.
“They would ask about my visa status,” says Brahmachari, who graduated with a first-class degree from the University of Cambridge in October.
The 25-year-old from Mumbai began his search for a graduate job in the UK as soon as he arrived to study for an MPhil in international relations in September 2011.
“My days were packed with activities: classes, rowing, badminton, rock climbing, boxing. Then I would come back and apply for a few jobs,” he explains.
After making more than 90 applications, Brahmachari received just five expressions of interest.
Whenever a prospective employer found out that he needed a sponsored work visa, the lines of communication went dead.
Even companies on the official register of sponsors turned him down, citing visa requirements as the issue, he says.
Cases such as Brahmachari’s are raising serious concerns among prospective students in India, who may wonder whether heading to the UK is worth it after all. And if students are questioning the value of studying in the UK because of the visa situation, that is a pressing worry for the British higher education sector.
Since April 2012, non-European Union graduates looking to stay on to work in the UK after their studies have four months to find a job paying at least £20,000 at a registered sponsor company that will support their application for a Tier 2 visa - the replacement for the automatic two-year post-study work visa to which such students were previously entitled.
A tough graduate employment market has exacerbated the impact of these changes, which are widely perceived by students and companies as barring the door to foreign workers.
Those who do manage to secure a Tier 2 visa complain of shifting goalposts around the restrictions.
Uzma Muneer, from Karachi in Pakistan, got a Tier 2 sponsorship to take up a job at a business school in London on a salary of £25,000.
But a rule change on 14 June last year meant that her wage would have to increase to £32,000 in line with minimum salary codes introduced for each sector.
Her employer was unwilling to increase her pay. She is now working part-time using her student visa, but she will have to leave the UK when this expires, she says.
For many Indian graduates, including Brahmachari, the changes have meant returning home in the past few months to look for work. There, they find an employment market where salaries are much smaller than those in the UK and the currency of a foreign degree is losing its value.
For many UK universities, it means that for the first time they are having to help their overseas graduates look for work in their home country, even as the government insists that Britain is still recruiting the brightest foreign talent.
Gaurav Lahiri, managing director of the Hay Group India, says Indian employers are becoming more discerning.
“Ten to 20 years ago if you said you had studied in England and [had decided to] come back to India, that would be enough,” Lahiri says. “But now people have gone through the system and know what works and what doesn’t.”
Indian graduates’ difficulty in finding work at home with a foreign degree was highlighted in December when it was reported that two graduates of Leeds Metropolitan University’s campus in Bhopal in India were taking their complaint against the branch campus to India’s Supreme Court. They argued that their degrees were worthless in India because the All India Council for Technical Education had not accredited them.
The “expat premium” that allowed graduates of overseas institutions to command higher salaries than their Indian-educated peers is also fading away, says Manish Sabharwal, chairman of TeamLease, an Indian staffing organisation.
“Increasingly the decision (about whether or not) to go overseas is driven by the cost of an education and the return on that investment,” says Sabharwal.
“A foreign degree doesn’t give the Indian student enough of a return in the job market in the short term. It may do in 20 or 30 years, but you can’t afford to wait that long if you have a loan.”
Taking a loan and going overseas to study was a low-risk position five years ago, Sabharwal says. “I don’t think it is any more,” he adds.
Pankaj Badaya, a 28-year-old from Jaipur, had an offer from the University of Glasgow to study for a master’s in computer science and a loan to pay for it. However, he turned the place down when he found that he would not automatically qualify for a post-study work visa.
“I have to pay a lot of fees, and the country isn’t allowing me to work after studying so that’s a big problem for me,” he says. Badaya is now considering learning German and going to study in Germany instead.
There are no official figures on average starting salaries for graduates in India. But monthly wage packets of £500 to £1,000 are not unusual for someone with a degree who is starting out in customer service or sales.
Graduates of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology can expect starting salaries of about £11,000 a year, and an MBA graduate of a leading business school might start on £22,000.
Shubhada M. Rao, president and chief economist at India’s Yes Bank, says: “Definitely a degree from a foreign university is very welcome, but at the same time indigenising it to adapt to the local working culture is important.”
This is where UK universities are beginning to step in.
In October last year, the University of the West of England launched UK/India Grad Link, a website aimed at connecting Indian, Chinese and Malaysian students with employers at home. Its early success prompted another university to offer to buy the site from UWE.
David Gee, global careers consultant at UWE, says the changes to Britain’s post-study work visa amount to an “abolition” of the right to work in the UK after graduating.
“The reality is that more Indian graduates will return home, and this is a service that will help facilitate that,” he says.
London makes it pitch
In late November, following UWE’s lead, a coalition of 16 London universities including King’s College London, London South Bank University and the University of East London launched a web portal linking students with the Indian jobs search website FirstNaukri.com (first job), where they can upload their CVs for Indian employers to see.
Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, attended the initiative’s official launch during his high-profile trip to New Delhi, where he told Times Higher Education that changes to post-study visa policies were “perceived as a barrier” by Indian students and needed “urgent sandpapering”.
Until that happens, universities appear to be putting in place contingency plans to help their foreign graduates find jobs abroad and, in turn, to improve their image among potential overseas students.
Gary Davies, chair of the newly formed London Universities International Partnership, which is behind the online initiative, says: “We are making headway as a sector convincing Indian students that the post-study work visa does still exist, but (we are) also thinking about the long-term need for employability.”
As a source of students coming to the UK, Davies adds, “India is a far more postgraduate market, older and more employment-focused.”
Three times as many Indians come to the UK for postgraduate study as do for undergraduate study. But numbers of Indian postgraduates opting for Britain fell for the first time in 2010-11 after a decade of healthy year-on-year growth. Changes to student visas, and particularly to the post-study work visa, are widely seen as responsible.
Deepali Singh, business head and senior vice-president of FirstNaukri, says most Indian recruiters are not exposed to people who have studied in the UK and do not understand the value of overseas degrees.
“Indians are very cautious,” she says. “There is more than enough supply within the country without looking to people from outside, unless they come with really specialised skills.”
Back in Mumbai, Brahmachari will start work this month as a senior researcher in international trade at the thinktank where he worked as an intern before going to Cambridge.
“British universities helping Indian students get jobs in India is a noble gesture,” Brahmachari says. “But really, is that what they have gone there to study for?”