May, I don't know what I did to wrong you

Rug pulled from under the feet. That's how it must have felt for non-EU/non-UK students in Britain when Theresa May introduced new immigration reforms in 2011, restricting their employability. Can Goodwill survive in the face of such apparent antipathy?

July 26, 2016 05:08 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 02:02 pm IST

This is a blog post from

I was watching Bill Maher’s show recently and he mentioned that Britain had a new Prime Minister — a new female Prime Minister. A loud cheer erupted from the studio audience. It should have been expected: for America, the thought of electing a female national leader is somewhat progressive. But to me, it was surprising and unexpected. I didn’t see Theresa May as a symbol for progress. She was the one who cancelled the post-study work visa programme and made it much harder for international students like me to stay on and work in the UK. I saw her as a symbol of misguided populism, heavy-handed policymaking and downright xenophobia.

On March 22, 2011, the British Home Office, over which she presided, published >this statement . You can read it yourself. In short, it cut my chances of living in the UK after graduation and put a gaping hole in my fledgling life-plan. The plan, for some reason, was to get a foreign degree and a foreign job so that your family could name-drop you and your company at weddings. I suspect I was not the only non-EU student who returned home feeling defeated. Had I known Theresa May would do this, I’d never have gone to the UK.

When I realised I would be going to university in the UK in summer 2008, I was excited. A chance to meet old friends, watch my favourite team, Arsenal, in the flesh, disappoint me and much more. I had lived in the UK during 1999-2002 when my dad was posted there for work and I had come to love the country and its culture. I had been brought up in the British education system and we were even fortuitous enough to own a home in London. We had family there. My first cricket idol was Darren Gough (stop laughing). England was my second home and I could not wait to get to Aston University in Birmingham (stop laughing) to study Business & International Relations.

Source: Wikipedia

The programme, begun in 1987, is named after the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, known as an opponent of dogmatism, who lived and worked in many places in Europe to expand his knowledge, and left his fortune to the University of Basel in Switzerland.

ERASMUS is also a backronym spelling European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students

The first two years of my B.Sc. were a blur. Aside from being treated like a criminal every time I had to pass immigration, the country welcomed me with open arms. People would always ask me if I faced any racism or bad behaviour. Not a jot. As an Indian in the UK, you’re not exotic — as I was when I was on exchange year in Germany — so you just blend into society and do your thing. I spent my third year of the Erasmus study-exchange in Germany. Erasmus is a fabulous programme where the European Union will pay for a large chunk of your tuition fees and give you a stipend to spend a semester or two at a partner institution across Europe. It is meant to foster international engagement and understanding between young people and that’s exactly what it did. I continue to learn German, have since worked in Germany and dream of returning someday to settle. My choosing the UK for undergraduate gave me a subsidised year in Germany — the best year of my life.

I returned to England for my fourth and final year at Aston in Autumn 2011, ready to start my job search. Enter, Theresa May. I remember going to the student employment office and confidently rattling off what I’d hoped would be employable skills. I was an undergrad with a few internships. What skills ? The lady at the employment office said, dead-pan: “Oh there’s been a change in the visa laws. You can’t stay on for two years under the old scheme. You’ll have to find a job with a company that can sponsor you or you’ll need to leave as soon as you graduate. Anything else?” I was puzzled but kept reassuring myself, they can’t just change the law like that. What about people who chose England because of the opportunity to get work experience here? No, they would never do that. There must be some catch .

There was no catch. Either you got picked up by an MNC or you went home. Most companies at the time would simply say on their recruitment pages: “If you don’t have a UK or EU passport, don’t apply”. I remember a pretty good phone interview with a recruitment officer ending with her saying, “Well that all seems lovely. And I assume you’ve got a British passport?”

“Err, no. I’m Indian.”

“Oh, but your accent? You speak very good English?”


“Oh I’m sorry I didn’t know that. I’ll have to just have a look… just bear with me… no I’m afraid my client is not able to sponsor work visas I’m afraid. I’m afraid I don’t think they’ll be able to take you on.”

She kept saying she was afraid. I was afraid!

As the year wore on, I got a few interviews and even reached the final round interview with Beiersdorf for a 2-year graduate position in Hamburg, Germany. I was unsuccessful. I would be going back to India. I had always imagined that I would work in the UK, build up some savings in a currency that actually mattered and eventually return to India. But not like this. I felt like I had wasted £60,000 of my parents’ hard-earned money on a government that did not think I was good enough.

In the months after I returned to India, that’s the question I asked myself the most: Why wasn’t I good enough? I felt I had failed my parents and myself. I kept telling myself that I didn’t work hard enough or wasn’t smart enough . International migration for young graduates is not a God-given right . The job market in Europe hadn’t recovered . I didn’t have any relevant skills . I knew of friends who had been able to stay behind in the UK with MNCs, so it must be me . I convinced myself that it was all my fault and after a few months of feeling sorry for myself, I moved on.

Theresa May certainly wasn’t worried about letting so-called “mediocre” international students in, as long as they could front the fees. She just didn’t want them sticking around, paying taxes and contributing to the economy.

And why should have I felt sorry for myself? I’ve lived a life of extreme privilege. If you live in India and you can afford domestic help, you are living a life of privilege. As an Indian who sees poverty and inequality in India’s every crevice, I am acutely aware of how lucky I am. How lucky we are, we molly-coddled-Third-world-children-with-First-world-problems, too good for our own countries but not good enough for others, ungrateful little dilettantes. There are a thousand kids in my neighbourhood in Mumbai who would give an arm and a leg to have my problems. I’ve noticed a trend — an unspoken understanding — among kids like me: getting out of India is easy. Any spoilt brat can do it. But staying out of India is hard. Those are the real winners. They beat the system. They impressed their dadi s and their nani s (grandmothers).

In 2012 I got a job with ForbesMagazine in Mumbai and, after three years, made Senior Correspondent and was accepted into a Master’s programme at Yale University. I think both my daadi and my naani are suitably impressed now. It wasn’t easy to adjust to India, but I don’t think I would ever have gotten a break like Forbes had I stayed in the UK. Who knows?

In the time since Theresa May has come to power, I’ve been re-examining my defeat. I wasn’t good enough for the UK, but somehow good enough for Forbes and Yale. I only scored a 2:1 at Aston — not a First-class honours — so maybe that was it. But I know of friends with 2:1s who managed to stay on and work. Did I not have the relevant skills to stay and make a meaningful contribution to Britain? A year after I left the UK, I interviewed Virat Kohli for a Forbes cover story. I think I could have helped Britain out, here and there.

Now, have big countries that accept international students cancelled their post-study work programmes in the wake of the global recession? Not necessarily. Germany — many of their courses are taught in English, totally free of charge even for international students — offers graduates 18 months of residence to look for jobs. Australia and Canada have similar programmes. The US — inshallah — has its 12-month OPT (Optional Practical Training) program. It’s not much and it’s not easy to get hired full-time but it’s something. Yes, there are many students — Indian students — who come to the UK for fake English language courses and work illegally in restaurants and other un/semi-skilled jobs. But a cursory glance at my file — I’m sure the venerable Brits have a file on me — would show that I’d done two paid summer internships in the UK in advertising and marketing respectively. I wasn’t going to work in a curry house, though I do make a mean stir-fry. The more I think about the UK kicking me out, the more I’m left scratching my head. Was it policy? Or politics?

In some ways, I understand the motivation behind May’s decision. It was a tough job market even for British and EU graduates, whose parents had been paying taxes into the welfare system for years and should have first right over jobs. The British government did not want phoney students to take unskilled jobs meant for unskilled British and EU labour. The British government must look out for its own citizens first. But my parents had paid three times the fees that British and EU students had paid. Theresa May certainly wasn’t worried about letting so-called “mediocre” international students in, as long as they could front the fees. She just didn’t want them sticking around, paying taxes and contributing to the economy.

It was a tough job market

It was a tough job market, but I’d have appreciated a fair shot. Another former student, >Naomi Barton, wrote an excellent piece outlining her experience trying to find a job in the publishing industry . I don’t think Theresa May and the Home Office were targeting people like us. But they did and here we are — the goodwill I had for Britain long gone.

I think her move was short-sighted. Indian student applications to the UK have fallen in the years since. Brexit has only increased Britain’s isolation. I even read recently that the wonderful Erasmus programme may exclude British students after Brexit. Maybe it’s all fear-mongering. Maybe I’m really not good enough. Maybe the UK is thriving. I don’t know because I’m not there. What I do know is that I will be telling every Indian high-school student who has the misfortune of coming to me for advice exactly what happened to me.

Maybe they’ll still choose the UK and I wish them well. I just feel like Britain is shooting itself in the foot. Has “cracking down” on foreign students really boosted the government’s approval ratings among its people? I’m not sure. Has it boosted employment among UK and EU graduates? Again, I don’t know whether they are doing the jobs that non UK/EU students would have done. Is Britain really full? Is every foreigner likely to be a fake student who works in curry houses and undercuts local labour markets? I don’t have much sympathy for them and I understand why when an immigration officer sees an Indian passport, he/she is immediately fearing the worst. Surely, the real culprits are the business-owners who employ and exploit illegal migrant labour? Did the government think I would squander my parent’s life-savings to work in a curry house? My stir-fry isn’t that good.

Any welfare state fears the poor immigrant, coming over in droves to steal state benefits. But I was not them. I’m at Yale on a scholarship. There must be another way to screen in the “best and brightest” — if that really is the government’s intention.

I will still visit my friends in England if I can and maybe watch Arsenal disappoint me yet again. I’ll still watch my favourite British comedians. Maybe I’ll find myself there again in the future, when the Isles deem me good enough. I’m not holding my breath. I wish you all the best, Ms May. I don’t know what I did to wrong you.

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