Why Indians aren’t impressed with Theresa May’s business offer

Bring in your business, but not your people. Stefan Rousseau PA Wire/PA Images

Theresa May’s three-day tour of India marks the start of her attempt to secure post-Brexit business with non-EU countries. Yet the message beginning to emanate from the UK government is: Indians, we want your business, and your high-net-worth business travellers, but the rest of you are not as welcome.

While the UK wants to secure Indian trade and investment, India is keen to see improvements in the human dimension of their relationship, focusing in particular on the immigration and visa regime. Business and people, after all, are intertwined. People generate business, they are employees and innovators in it, and they consume the goods and services emanating from it.

May has given a cursory nod to the people side of India’s concerns. She has announced that a select group of high-net-worth Indians and their families will now be offered access to the UK, with the launch of a “Great Club” for them. This is an “invitation only service” that comes with bespoke support from the government’s visas and immigration department.

Visa rules are not being relaxed for most. Laura Lean PA Archive/PA Images

Otherwise, the rest of the visa regime, which bears a strong May imprint from her days as home secretary, remains unchanged. In response to the Indian demand that visa conditions for students and skilled workers be liberalised, May has said: “Nine out of ten visa applications from India are already accepted. We have, I believe, a good system.”

What this quote does not take into account is the self-selection that happens before people reach a UK visa centre in India. The window to that visa centre has consistently narrowed under the UK’s Conservative governments, across visa categories. For instance in 2015, the financial guarantee for those seeking Tier 4 (general) student visas to the UK rose from £7,380 to £9,135 a year. This, in a country where the average annual income is £933.

Not a good system

When a student, or indeed any category of visa applicant, puts together the funds and paperwork required to submit a visa application, they face questions, delays, and further entry barriers. This is so for Indian students, and those from other nationalities, particularly from the Global South. The experiences of some my students at Oxford exemplify how the UK treats the best and the brightest who seek to study there:

I had a terrible experience applying for a visa. I applied from Bangladesh (my home country) … the application gets sent to Delhi for review, which means that the process takes about two months. When I applied the first time I was rejected due to a clerical error. The worst part was that there were no instructions in the rejection letter on how to appeal the decision. The only way I managed to eventually appeal and get the visa was through a connection who worked at the visa office in Delhi.

I was incredibly lucky, honestly, first because I knew someone in the local office and second because the university provided tons of support – they also wrote to the Delhi office on my behalf. Other Bangladeshi students have faced similar situations and have ended up with lots of wasted, hard earned money and not being able to take up their university offers in the end.

Even if a student has a generous scholarship and guaranteed accommodation and living expenses, they and their family members are treated with suspicion. The UK government’s keeping of students at arm’s length is a reflection of broader political discourse. One of my South African students shared this experience:

I feel like I have to justify my stay in the UK to strangers. I don’t think people are at all aware that international students pay higher fees as well as NHS charges – that we are not ‘sponging’ off the system.

We can add the NHS charge to this potent mix of rhetoric, policy and practice that makes international students feel unwelcome. Since 2015, students from outside the EU pay £150 per visa year for access to health services. If a family accompanies the student, this cost is multiplied. It is clear that the government does not simply see this as payment for services they expect students to use. Instead, the government proudly states that “after only six months [of the surcharge being introduced] it had collected more than £100m to contribute to the NHS for the benefit of us all”.

It is astounding that students and other visitors from countries like Mozambique, Bangladesh and India are paying for healthcare in a country where the aged are the biggest users.

Killing the goose

If students feel unwelcome, face visa restrictions, ever increasing fees and living expenses, limited scholarships, difficulty staying on to find a job, steep healthcare charges, and entry barriers for families, the net result, even for the utilitarians amongst us, is the killing of the goose that lays the golden egg. International students are a major source of income and employment generation for the UK economy. They contributed £7 billion in income in 2012 and supported 136,000 domestic jobs.

But these students are now voting with their feet. If, going against the trends of globalisation, the UK doggedly argues that British jobs, like British universities, are for British people, it has no one but itself to blame for steadily falling student numbers. Whereas 181,000 non-EU nationals entered the UK for higher education in 2010, by 2015, this number was down to 112,000.

Different agendas: Theresa May and Narendra Modi. EPA/STR

Indian students are part of this trend. Some estimates say their numbers have halved in the last five years, going from 39,090 in 2010-11 to 18,320 in 2014-15. Some of these may have been the result of a crackdown on fraudulent education visas. But this focus ignores the practices, outlined above, that have contributed to international students’ general lowering of confidence in the systems around UK higher education.

By entangling education in nationalist jingoism, the tussle over net immigration numbers, and the budget deficits of key services, the UK government is showing a critical lack of vision. International students add immeasurably to the higher education sector in the UK.

The same can be said for the multicultural hives of ingenuity that are the UK’s financial, creative, health and technology sectors. UK universities, the City of London, the NHS and many other businesses and services take great pride in their internationalism.

The damage being wreaked through a narrow vision of what the UK and its institutions stand for, is already being felt, and will only accelerate. As the UK delegation makes its way from Delhi to Bangalore, it cannot ignore that people constitute business. Chip away at people, and the business environment will follow suit.