The aspiration to travel abroad for university and work has long been ubiquitous across India.

In a country of 1.4 billion people, places at India’s top universities are excruciatingly competitive and graduate job prospects at the other end are gloomy. India’s economy is the fifth largest in the world but unemployment topped 8% last month, with graduate unemployment even higher at about 18%.

In 2022, 770,000 Indian students went to study abroad, and that number is growing by about 10% every year. Out of those last year almost 140,000 went to the UK. According to new figures from the Office for National Statistics, close to a quarter of all visas were granted to Indian nationals in 2022 – the highest of any nationality – and 55% of those were for students.

For those in the middle and upper classes who have the means to send their children abroad for university, it has long been a choice between the US and the UK, both for cultural ease – English is largely the second language of educated Indians – and the quality of academic institutions that are globally recognised.

Because of the high fees and costs involved, it is still only a small percentage overall who study abroad. Many Indian families make huge sacrifices to send their children to foreign universities, often mortgaging their homes or taking on huge personal debt, with the view that it is a worthwhile investment in the long term. There is also a booming and unregulated business of “agents” who help students in India get into British and American universities, often at a heavy cost.

The historical and cultural ties between India and the UK have always made it a particularly favourable choice for Indian students, as well as the large Indian diaspora that live in the UK, meaning many people have relatives already living there. It also has the significant advantage of being far cheaper than the US, and with a less time-consuming and costly application process. UK master’s programmes have long been more popular as they are just one year, so are seen as better value for money: about 70% of the Indian students in the UK are there for postgraduate study.

Trisha Uberoi, 26, who was born in Delhi, chose to do her bachelors degree in business at the University of Nottingham in 2015, and then went on to do a master’s at the University of Bath in innovation and technology management. She now lives in London, working for a sustainability software company.

Uberoi’s decision to study abroad came from a desire to break out of the social restrictions of India, particularly for women. She chose the UK over the US because of the lower cost and less competitive application process and the fact it was a little closer to home.

“Living in India I always felt very restricted,” she said. “Even though I come from an extremely relatively open-minded, progressive family, I still really felt the weight of judgment and rules that never felt logical for me. Studying in the UK felt like my way out.”

For years, the number of Indians studying in the UK was in decline. Political pressure under Theresa May’s Conservative government turned foreign students into targets in the game of political football over immigration statistics in a bid to create “net zero student migration”. As the opportunity to work in the UK after graduation was made far more difficult, the number of Indian students coming to the UK decreased.

That all changed after Brexit, however, when the UK pledged to increase its international student intake up to 600,000 by 2030. As recruitment of foreign students increased, Indian students returned to UK universities in their droves and immigration lawyers in Delhi said inquiries about UK student and work visas had rocketed. The number soared further post 2020, when a two-year post-study work visa was reintroduced for graduate students. Indians are now the largest group of foreign students taking up this post-study visa, making up more than 40%.

Last year, an agreement was signed between the UK and India governments to mutually recognise academic qualifications, also making the UK more attractive for Indian students. India has now surpassed China in the number of students at British universities.

For Uberoi, finding a job in the UK after she graduated was her “main goal” for she felt India did not have the job opportunities she aspired to. She did internships in the House of Lords and at companies including Cobra Beer until she eventually landed a job offer after her master’s, where the tech company offered to sponsor her skilled work visa. Nonetheless, she said this was not the trend she saw among of her fellow Indian students. “Most of them went back home,” she said.

Sanam Arora, founder and chair of the National Indian Students Association UK, said that the main draw for Indian students studying in the UK was the ability to secure a post-work study visa, so they didn’t have to return home immediately.

“Though there is this entrepreneurial spirit in India, there are also major concerns around unemployment, particularly in securing technical jobs for graduates, so the ability to get a few years work experience abroad after graduating is seen as very important,” she said.

She emphasised that this arrangement was beneficial for the UK, as the majority of Indian students come to the UK to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, areas in which job vacancies in the UK often go unfulfilled for months.

Arora was among those who warned that any attempts by the current government to return to previous policies of targeting international students as a way to bring down net migration was shortsighted. She called for students to be removed from net-migration statistics and instead be counted as temporary migrants, as happens in the US and Australia.

Critics have warned that it also risks undermining the UK’s crucial ongoing trade deal negotiations with India, where one of the key issues for India is increased access for its skilled workers to UK work visas. Recent agreements between the two countries have in fact aimed to boost legal routes for Indians to come to the UK, including the migration and mobility partnership signed in 2021. This included the creation of an Indian young professionals scheme, where 2,400 Indians with a degree are granted, through a ballot system, a visa to work, study and travel in the UK.

India is also the second largest foreign investor in the UK, with Indian companies and projects creating more than 8,600 jobs last year, meaning any crackdown on skilled work visas is likely to prove unpopular with the Indian government and the Indian business community.

“It took a lot of work from the higher education sector to rebuild the UK’s reputation for international students,” said Arora. “There’s a worry with all this flip-flopping that it will again create this distrust among Indian students, who are made to feel like commodities or cash cows.”

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