The UK needs more Indian talent in the post-Brexit era, not less

The UK needs more Indian talent in the post-Brexit era, not less
The UK needs more Indian talent in the post-Brexit era, not less

Trade deals are about more than just tariffs, they are about relationships and the movement of people, writes Lord Bilimoria. I came to the UK as a student in the early 1980s, where I knew I would receive a world-class education. The UK has, along with the US, the best universities in the world and those who study in the UK form lifelong connections with British people and the nation itself. Theresa May's recent visit to India would have been the ideal opportunity to announce strengthened ties, especially on the point of immigration. The reduction in fees for a two-year multiple entry visa for Chinese visitors to £87, announced by David Cameron last year, made great economic sense. A similar reduction for Indian visitors, who currently have to pay well over £300 for a similar visa, would have been incredibly well received in India on the PM's recent trip, as well as encouraging business and tourist visitors from India. The Prime Minister's delegation to India was littered with missed opportunities. On the eve of the trip it was announced that the minimum annual salary threshold for Tier 2 visas, used by Indian IT workers - one of the country's most prominent exports, would rise from £21,000 to £35,000. This move simultaneously damaged our ability to attract global talent and made Indian IT exports to the UK less competitive - souring our relations with India. During her visit, Theresa May chose to focus on deporting Indian over stayers in the UK, rather than making the case for Indian pupils to study in Britain. Predictably, this went down like a lead balloon. The government's boasts about the UK's ability to conduct trade deals with India highlights a fatal misunderstanding - trade deals are about more than just tariffs, they are about relationships and the movement of people. There is little wonder that, for many in India, the UK-India relationship is now viewed as purely transactional. When questioned by the BBC on whether India's longstanding relationship with the UK would lead to an accelerated trade deal between the countries, Nirmala Sitharaman, India's Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, stated: "Well, I thought so and most of us in India thought so; but we aren′t being treated as old friends any longer. It′s a tight professional engagement.” International collaboration is a hard-earned prize and a highly valuable reward for Britain. We should be encouraging reciprocal relationships that have positive impacts for both nations. International students contribute, directly and indirectly, £14 billion to the UK economy, making higher education one of this country's most valuable exports. Key to this encouragement is the promotion of Britain as a welcoming and hospitable place to work and study. Research is a global enterprise and it is essential that the UK's leading universities and research institutions are able to engage and collaborate with the best talent in the world. The EU referendum result has created uncertainty about the way in which we will allow foreign researchers and prospective students to continue working and studying at our universities. Brexit also raises questions about how EU nationals and foreign students are treated - this is a grave concern as our rivals in Australia, Canada and the United States are already beginning to steal a march on us. With the government's current obstinacy on anything immigration related, there is no guarantee that foreign students and researchers will continue to have access to our universities. We have to fight hard to get a change in visa restrictions in order to keep them and I know that is something university leaders are willing to do. If we do indeed go ahead and leave the European Union, researchers in particular could become subject to immigration restrictions through the Tier 2 (General) route, the most common visa route for non-EEA Professors, lecturers and researchers seeking to work in the UK. Universities have stressed that, if this were the case, there would need to be a radical upward revision of the Tier 2 'cap' of 20,700 per year simply to keep our knowledge economy afloat. To combat this, we should immediately re-introduce the two-year post-study work visa, which I fought hard to introduce before its withdrawal in 2012, to allow foreign students to implement their much needed skills here and help boost our economy. Following Theresa May's speech, that dashed Indian hopes for a more liberal visa system, Narendra Modi's comments on higher education were incredibly important. He stressed that “education is vital for our students and will define our engagement in a shared future”, noting that “we must therefore encourage greater mobility and participation of young people in education and research opportunities.” Over the last five years, the number of Indian students attending UK universities has halved. I have consistently asked the government to remove students from the net migration target, as this gives the wrong perception, given the government's target to reduce migration to the tens of thousands. The British public agrees with this distinction - just 22 per cent agree that international students should be classed as immigrants and almost 80 per cent want international students to stay on and work. Theresa May claims that overseas student numbers should be cut, citing flawed International Passenger Survey estimates that up to 90,000 students over-stay their visa annually. 'The Times' have published evidence stating that only 1,500 of students do not leave each year, yet the Prime Minister refuses to budge on this issue and plays willfully into UKIP's hands, with no credible evidence on her side. A more truthful picture - and a more sensible policy - would be built if we introduced comprehensive exit checks at our borders for everyone leaving the UK. This would give us an accurate picture of who comes into and out of the country, provide us with a good basis on which to build policy, and also enable us to continue benefitting from the enormous impact international students make in this country. Higher education is one of the UK's most potent sources of soft power. Many of our prized international scholars go on to become world leaders, with an estimated one in 10 global heads of state educated in the UK. Overseas students form significant bonds with domestic students and the nation itself. The number of individuals studying abroad worldwide is set to grow rapidly, almost doubling in size by 2025. We must capitalise on this because, without it, we cannot continue being the outward-facing, open and tolerant nation that people throughout the world respect, and our research capabilities will be enduringly damaged.

Lord Bilimoria is the founder and chairman of Cobra Beer, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, and the founding Chairman of the UK-India Business Council.

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