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Above: The dream of many Indian students who want to study in the UK lies shattered, as of now

The cancellation of an MoU with Britain has backfired on Indian students who want to study in universities there as they continue to be called “high risk” and face tough documentary checks

~By Sajeda Momin in London

Indian students who were looking forward to a more relaxed visa process for coming to the United Kingdom (UK) for higher studies will be disappointed as they continue to be dubbed “high risk” and face rigorous checks and documentary requirements. They can blame Prime Minister Narendra Modi for their plight as he had at the last minute decided not to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the return of Indian “overstayers” in Britain during his visit to London in mid-April. In retaliation, the British government decided to keep India out of its new expanded list of “low risk” countries.

The Home Office on June 16 announced a relaxation of the Tier 4 visa category for overseas students from another 11 countries—taking the total up to 25—that it considers “low risk”. However, it left India out of it, causing outrage in New Delhi and to some NRIs in London. The UK government added fuel to the fire by adding arch-rival China to the revised list that was tabled in Parliament.

The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were already considered “low risk” in terms of students overstaying after their visas expired and had easier application processes to UK universities. The Home Office has added Mexico, Bahrain, Maldives, Serbia and China among others from where students would face reduced checks on educational, financial and English language skill requirements to study at British universities. The changes will come into effect on July 6.

Lord Karan Bilimoria, an Indian-origin businessman and president of the UK Council for International Students Affairs, was outraged by the Home Office’s decision and called it an “insult” to India. “I consider this another kick in the teeth for India. It sends entirely the wrong message to India, to exclude it from these Tier 4 measures. The government has simply got it wrong,” said Lord Bilimoria, who is also the founder of Cobra Beer and founding chairman of the UK India Business Council. Bilimoria has been a consistent campaigner for easing visa norms for Indian students.

However, the UK government has directly linked the exclusion of Indian students from the “streamlined” visa process to India’s refusal to sign the MoU on the return of illegal migrants. Liam Fox, Britain’s Sec-retary of State for International Trade categorically said as much on the sidelines of the launch of the UK-India Week in London on June 19. “This is a constant conversation we need to have with India. There is always a demand for easier norms, but we cannot look at that without addressing the issue of overstayers,” said Fox.

The draft of the MoU on illegal migration was initiated during minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju’s visit to London in January. “We are in favour of smooth and legal migration and discourage all kinds of illegal migration,” Rijiju had said then. The Indian cabinet had approved the MoU to facilitate the deportation of alleged illegal Indian immigrants in the UK to India and vice-versa days before Modi’s visit to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings. The agreement was even touted as the centerpiece of nearly 25 MoUs to be signed by India and the UK during Modi’s trip.

However at the last moment, Modi backed out of signing the pact reportedly due to reservations expressed by the Ministry of External Affairs on the timeline given to verify the background of an undocumented migrant. The Indian government insisted that 15 days was not enough to determine whether the alleged visa “overstayer” was from India or elsewhere in the sub-continent, leading to an impasse on the issue which is yet to be resolved. The ramifications of not signing the pact are now being borne by Indian students.

The National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU) UK, expressed disappointment at India’s exclusion and said it was unfair that Indian students should be treated differently from Chinese or other nationals on the list. “It is important to note that the announcement makes no change to the process of application for Indian students, but it is the perception of this message among Indian students that worries us. And, this raises another question—will China continue to get even more favourable actions while India gets the rhetoric,” questioned Sanam Arora, president of NISAU UK.

India is already upset that it is not considered on par with China even when it comes to other visas besides those given to students. For the last couple of years, Chinese business visitors and tourists can acquire two-year multiple entry visas at a reduced price of £85, but for Indians, the same visa still costs a whopping £388.

India provides UK universities with the third highest number of overseas students, the first two being the US and China, respectively. According to the Office of National Statistics, Indian students registered a hike of 30 percent in Tier 4 visas last year, bringing the number up to 15,171, but a far cry from the 30,000 issued six years ago. In its defense, the Home Office claimed that it “issues more visas to Indian students than any other country, except for the US and China”, and stressed that 90 percent of Indian students who apply for a visa get one.

Just recently, the Indian High Commissioner to UK, YK Sinha had held a meeting with UK’s minister for universities, Sam Gyimah, where he had raised the need for “smoother and greater student and faculty mobility between the two countries”. “It is unfortunate that in the last six years we have seen a steep drop in the number of Indian students coming to the UK. What should be troubling universities here is that Indian students are now going in much greater numbers to the US, Australia, even France and Germany,” Sinha had said. Canada has become a hot favourite for Indian students, with around one lakh currently studying there.

At the UK-India Week launch, Sinha made an indirect reference to the Tier 4 imbroglio, arguing that it was important that “free movement of people” remains at the heart of future ties because it is the students and youth who sustain the bilateral relationship. “Indian students contribute immensely, not just to the economy of this country but in terms of their expertise. International students are the best soft power tool that the UK has,” said Sinha.

Interestingly, the bad news for students comes in the wake of Britain’s decision to ease the cap on immigration blocking Tier 2 visas for doctors, nurses and other professionals from non-EU countries. The National Health Service England has 35,000 vacancies for nurses and nearly 10,000 for doctors as of February this year, and many of these will be filled by Indians. Sinha alluded to this, saying that visa policies should be looked at as a question of “demand and supply”. “The UK needs more doctors, we will give you those doctors. But we do need them back home too, so once they acquire the expertise within the NHS, please send them back.”

Considering that Britain is already talking about a post-Brexit free trade agreement with India, its decision to overlook Indian students seems to be a bit naïve. India has made it clear that freedom of movement of professionals and students would be a key issue in talks for a post-Brexit free trade pact.

However, there is no denying that Indians do form a chunk of “overstayers” or illegal immigrants and the faster New Delhi accepts this and moves ahead with taking them back, the easier it will be for Indians to go to the UK legally.

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