Through different historical phases of the Britain-India encounter, Indian students have sought out high-quality education in the United Kingdom. Factors such as a common language, overlapping histories, and, in more recent times, an enterprising British-Indian migrant presence added to the appeal that world-class U.K. universities and colleges exerted on aspiring Indian students.

The post-Independence decades saw an acceleration in the flow of students from India to U.K. campuses, with ever-larger numbers seeking work, and a good number of them citizenship in the country.

Therefore, the sudden and significant drop in the numbers of Indian students — almost 10,000 between 2010-11 and 2011-12 — negates a historical trend that points to the emergence of new push factors in the educational and political environment in the U.K. that are discouraging students from coming.

Indian students constitute the second largest body of overseas students in higher education in the U.K., next only to Chinese students. Together they account for over 35 per cent of all non-EU domicile students in the U.K., and their numbers have dropped by almost 25 percentage points in one year (see table).

With admissions to colleges and universities for this year over, all indications are that the drop in numbers will continue. The new rules envisaged in the Immigration Bill, introduced this month by Home Secretary Theresa May, is predicted to make studying in the U.K. even more difficult for overseas students.

“The reason for the substantial drop in the number of students is because of the changes in work entitlement rules in the last two years,” said Dominic Scott, Chief Executive, U.K. Council for International Student Affairs. One factor was the changes made to part-time work entitlements in 2011. The 20-hour-a-week work entitlement for students that helped many of them earn their keep, was withdrawn for students enrolled in private colleges. Only students in universities and publicly funded colleges were given this entitlement. The other reason was the withdrawal of the post-study work visa in April 2012. This had allowed students to work for two years after getting their degrees.

“This made the biggest dent on student enrolments from India,” said Mr. Scott. “Indian students, unlike Chinese students who are most often funded by rich parents, take loans and scrimp and save to fund their education.” The adverse exchange rate between the pound and the rupee has added to the financial pressure on Indian students, he said.

Under the new immigration bill that will take effect from April 2014, international students must pay a levy of £200 for use of the National Health Service. Landlords will be expected to check the immigration status of their student tenants. If found to be renting to students who are flouting visa rules, a landlord could be fined up to £3,000.

Students to the U.K. this year have also had to go through a “credibility interview,” a test of spoken English and clarity of purpose in a student. Critics fear that these are non quantifiable, and could introduce class and cultural into the visa process.

“The environment is becoming hostile towards international students,” said Daniel Stevens, International Students Officer, National Union of Students, U.K. “We are planning to launch a big campaign against restrictions placed on overseas students, the lack of transparency in the way that the United Kingdom Border Agency conducts the visa process, and the unannounced increases in fees,” he said.

Last year, the Border Agency revoked the licences of around 500 private colleges, throwing thousands of south Asian students out on the streets and searching for other colleges where they could enrol.

Tapering off

The case of Ajesh Anirudhan, who came from Chennai in 2011 to do a post graduate diploma in Business Management, is typical of hundreds of other Indian students. He paid £6,000 in tuition fees for an 18-month course at the Sterling Academy in Harrow, London. “The licence of my college was revoked in May 2012, three months before the end of the course, and 150 of us were given 60 days to get alternative admissions,” he said. He did get an admission, although in a completely different specialisation, at the Stoke College of Management and IT, on payment of another £3,000 in tuition fees. Two months later, the licence of this college was also revoked. Ajesh is once again in a limbo, having applied to yet another college. He faces uncertainty with his visa status, and further financial liabilities.

According to Abhishek Nakhate, managing director of Zoom Abroad, an education consultancy and placement agency, 2013 has seen a “great fall in the numbers of students coming to the U.K., and therefore in our business. In fact, I have closed down two of my five outlets in India because of this.” He claims that in 2011 he placed 180 students to universities and colleges in the U.K. The figure fell to 100 in 2012. This year, it is just 25.

“Regardless of what Mr. Cameron says about the country wanting Indian students, the perception is that the U.K. has become a non-welcoming country for students,” he said. He acknowledges that many South Asians take the student route solely to gain entry for immigration purposes, but argues that in the crackdown, thousands of genuine students will be denied educational opportunities in the U.K.

Could boomerang

Experts, however, warn that the Conservative government’s hard line on immigration could well boomerang economically on the country. To bring down net migration, the Home Office is preventing thousands of students, who may not even be immigrants, from entering universities and colleges. They are an easy target as they constitute the single largest group arriving in a single year.

According to a report put out by Immigration Matters, an online immigration resource, “as long as international students are included in the net migration target, the quickest and easiest way for the government to reach its targets is to ruthlessly cull student numbers at all costs.”

The report argues that as one of the U.K.’s most successful items of export, education, like tourism, should be encouraged and made attractive.

“According to the Think Tank, Institute of Public Policy Research, international students contribute an estimated £8 billion to the U.K. economy every year, paying tuition fees to universities and colleges and making a valuable contribution to local economies. The students turned away, refused visa extensions or just scared off from studying in the U.K. would have been customers for landlords, pubs, shops and restaurants, as well as for colleges, at a time when sources of economic growth are desperately needed.”

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