Drop students from migration stats to save historic ties – and UK’s international reputation

Bright Indian brains are being put off by visa stance. Jagadeesh NV/EPA

For more than 200 years the histories of India and Britain have been closely intertwined. Forged in the age of the empire, the bond between our two nations is nonetheless one that has become mutually enriching.

From the British, India has inherited both its democracy, its second language and – most important of all – its cricket. In the UK, India’s influence is equally evident, from the the country’s enduring love affair with curry to the popularity of the booming Bollywood film industry.

It is this unique brand of internationalism, alongside world-class universities, which first drew me to settle in the UK and continues to attract talent from all over the globe. Our seats of learning are rightly revered as being – along with those of the United States – the finest in the world.

Universities have long been one of the UK’s greatest cultural exports and their continuing strength is something I have proudly observed over my past few months as Chancellor of the University of Birmingham.

Reputation tarnished

In 2011-12, non-EU overseas students contributed £7.3 billion to the UK’s GDP, according to Universities UK, while the scholars drawn to UK shores constantly enrich the country’s culture and invigorate the economy. Despite these evident benefits, the government’s heavy-handed treatment of immigration has seen this welcoming reputation shaken, leaving foreign students less certain than they once were of Britain’s openness.

Last year, the number of international students enrolling in UK universities dropped by 1% – the first reduction of this kind in over 30 years. With a recent survey by the National Union of Students (NUS) revealing that 51% of international students find the government to be unwelcoming, it is clear that the UK’s image abroad is changing.

And yet, at the same time as the Home Office is setting about deterring the brightest and best, it is losing control of illegal immigration. If I were to ask Theresa May how many illegal migrants are living in the UK today, she would be unable to answer.

Damaging Britain

Part of this problem lies in the statistics. By including overseas students as immigrants in our figures, a climate of hostility against foreign talent is being created, which is damaging not only to universities, but also the UK’s future as one of the top ten global economies. Every engineer, every computer scientist and every young hopeful turned away will be received with open arms by academic institutions in the US and other parts of Europe.

I have added my voice to those of the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Lord Heseltine calling for the removal of foreign students from immigration figures. The opinion of the general public is also with us, with 59% against reducing the number of foreign students, even if it makes meeting immigration targets more difficult. Despite this, legislation remains unchanged.

Following the abortive attempts of the UK government to impose a security bond on “high risk” visa applicants from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, it is hardly surprising that students from these countries are beginning to look elsewhere for their further education. The number of Indian students applying to UK universities fell by a staggering 25% last year. This figure is alarming to me personally, but it should also sound as a warning note to politicians. Clearly, strong measures are required to win back the confidence of this historical partner, and reverse a worrying trend.

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I travelled to India in October with the universities minister, Greg Clark, as part of an initiative to future-proof Anglo-Indian relations. While there, it became clear that many Indian students and business leaders have a negative perception of the UK government’s stance towards immigration, despite their awareness of the great potential the country can offer.

Not a one-way street

Schemes such as Generation UK-India, unveiled during our trip, will go some ways towards correcting this problem. At present, the flow of students between the two countries is practically one-way, with only one British student travelling to India for every 300 going from India to the UK.

This seems ludicrous: India is one of the fastest growing economies in the developing world with higher education institutions that are crucibles for innovation and entrepreneurship. By encouraging UK students to experience higher education in India, we will broaden their minds and give them the competitive edge, reaping huge rewards for both countries. Furthermore, the personal and business relationships they will form during their time abroad will cement friendship and stimulate future trade between our nations.

I have long spoken of the necessity for British companies to hold global ambitions from day one. In such a fast-moving, interconnected and integrated world, our businesses cannot afford to lose sight of the international picture.

Today’s students are the entrepreneurs of tomorrow – any investment in international learning we make today is also a move to strengthen the businesses of our future. This is why the fostering of international learning, both at home and abroad, cannot be anything less than an absolute priority.