A visa game changer for UK-India education ties

Special Report
A visa game changer for UK-India education ties

An influential new study wants the UK to double its post-study work visa offer to four years as a means to double the number of Indian students at British universities by 2024.

The UK government must double its post-study visa offer to international students to four years, which could prove a game changer in doubling the number of India students choosing UK universities for higher education by 2024, an influential new study has claimed. This hike in the number of Indian students, it believes, would not only bring some welcome benefits to the UK's economy and its soft power, but also help counter-balance the current over-reliance on one set of international students - those from China.

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prepared by former UK Universities Minister Jo Johnson for the Policy Institute at King's College London and the Harvard Kennedy School, warns that an anticipated 50-75 per cent drop in international students as a result of the coronavirus pandemic would expose “real vulnerabilities” in the country's higher education sector. An expansion of the ability to work at the end of a degree course and to include Indians in the low-risk student visa category of countries, akin to China, would prove particularly attractive to Indian students - a group which has registered a strong hike in numbers choosing UK universities in recent months.

Game changer

“For students in India, this offer would be a total game changer. It would be sensational for the ability of our universities to go and market British higher education in India,” said Jo Johnson, the younger brother of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“The increase that I am proposing to the post-study work visa will be of particular appeal to students from India, who are very sensitive to whether or not they have an ability to stay on in the country after they graduate to put to use the skills they have acquired in higher education and earn a bit of money to help them pay the pretty considerable fees that our universities charge them,” he said, adding that the UK PM has always been a “strong supporter” of international students and is therefore likely to take the report′s proposals into consideration.

The former Conservative Party MP, who resigned from politics last year, has been an ardent supporter of competitive post-study visa offers to keep the UK in line with other higher education destinations such as Australia and Canada.
“The issue is that the world has not stood still. Coronavirus is significantly going to reduce the number of international students that are globally mobile this coming year and probably following years as well,” he explains.
“We propose to double the number of students from India and increase significantly students from other key countries such as Nigeria and Malaysia to rebalance the mix. We don't want an over-dependence on students from one particular country,” said Johnson.

Unmet demand

His report highlights that the UK is well-positioned to capitalise on an "unmet demand from India", which registered an impressive 136 per cent hike in student visa numbers in the year ending March 2020. It stresses the need for the UK to go further and also streamline visa processes and remove a perceived “hostile bureaucracy” around Britain′s university offering.
“The Home Office's continued exclusion of India from its low-risk Tier 4 visa list, which denotes countries from which student visa applications are streamlined, has understandably provoked deep unhappiness,” the report notes.
Under the current rules, the UK is set to open up a new “Graduate” visa route, commonly referred to as a post-study visa, for the 2020-21 intake to UK universities. It will offer international students from countries like India the chance to switch onto a skilled work visa after two years if they find a job which meets the skill requirements of the route. The Graduate visa is designed for overseas students to be able to work or look for work after completing their course.
The study wants this expanded further amid concerns raised by UK universities of the adverse impact of the worldwide coronavirus lockdown, which is expected to hit the number of higher fee-paying international students taking up courses at UK universities.
Vivienne Stern, Director, Universities UK International said such a bold policy initiative would help the UK stand out in an increasingly competitive higher education global marketplace.
She said: “UUK long campaigned for the introduction of a two-year post-study work visa and we were delighted to welcome the government change of policy on this last year, which means that Indian students starting their studies in the UK this autumn can remain in the UK to work or look for work for two years after graduation.
“We agree that extending the period to four years would make us really competitive with destinations like Australia, which offers between three and four years. A bold policy move like this would help the UK stand out to Indian students in an increasingly competitive field.”

Red tape

Jo Johnson believes there has been some welcome progress in the student visa regime since 2012, when the “disastrous decision” was taken to reduce the post-study work visa from two years to “ridiculously short” four months. That effectively turfed students out the moment they graduated. Under Boris Johnson's manifesto commitment last year, the option to stay back and look for work for two years after completing a course was reinstated.
But there remains a lot of red tape and off-putting regulations that reduce the UK's competitiveness in the market for international students.
“We should remove that because international students are good for our universities, good for our economy and they are also good for the learning environment of domestic students. There's really nothing not to like,” says Johnson.
“As a country, we should be going all out to attract them. They are one of the strongest instruments of soft power we have as a country. If we are serious about global Britain, we should maximise the number of international students we have in our system and not try and put them off,” he said.

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