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The Telegraph
| Thursday, September 5, 2013 |

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Cool Britannia, uncool visa rules

Fewer Indian students seem to be applying to UK universities for higher studies because of Britain's new visa rules. So should you steer clear of the UK now, asks Hemchhaya De

After completing his master's degree in physics at the Bengal Engineering and Science University (Besu) in Calcutta last year, Debaditya Biswas wanted to pursue doctoral studies at a top UK university. But even after receiving acceptance letters from three leading universities, he chose to forsake them, thanks to the UK's new visa rules.

"All the universities I applied to had almost no financial aid for doctoral students," says Debaditya. "Initially, I planned to take an education loan and work part time to fund the overall expenses (around 17,000 a year). But my friends there informed me that it's virtually impossible to get part time jobs after changes in visa rules."

So Debaditya will now head to either Howard University in Washington DC or Baylor University in Texas, both of which have offered him full scholarships, along with teaching or research assistantships.

Biswas is not alone. The UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) reports that the number of Indian students opting for British universities in 2011-12 dropped by 23.5 per cent, compared to 2010-2011. According to the University of Sussex, there has been an overall 25-30 per cent decline in the number of Indian students in the UK in 2012-2013 and the number is expected to fall further next year.

The British High Commission in Delhi broadly confirms the statistics for earlier years, but states that the figures have shot up this year. "There was a reduction in student numbers from India in 2011-12," says the high commission, adding that UCAS (Universities & Colleges Admissions Service) has received more applications from India this year than during the same period last year. "This needs to be seen in the light of very significant rise in numbers over previous years. The UK welcomes more students from India each year than any other country in the world, after China."

In April 2012, the British government announced the abolition of the Tier 1 or post study work (PSW) visa, allowing students to apply for a Tier 2 work-based visa instead. One of the vital requirements for a Tier 2 visa is that a student must be offered a job that pays at least 20,300 a year. What's more, India has just recently been put on a list of "high-risk" Asian and African countries whose citizens would need to deposit a 3,000 cash bond when they apply for British visas. If they overstay, the money will be forfeited.

"In the past there has been some abuse of the student visa rules. As a result, some of these were tightened," says the British High Commission, stressing that 80 per cent of student visa applicants receive their visas.

Prospective Indian students as well as those already studying in British universities are, however, reacting strongly to what they allege to be "discriminatory" rules for South Asians.

Says Sohag Chakraborty, who returned to India after completing her master's degree in cell biology at Manchester University last year, "Even after getting a master's degree from a high ranking university, I struggled to find a job. There's a good number of vacancies in biotech companies in the UK but the strict visa rules have become a major obstacle for graduates, especially those from South Asia," she says. Sohag is now applying to US universities for a doctoral degree.

Overseas education consultants in India are also witnessing a dwindling interest in British education among Indian students. "The UK had been a popular destination, second only to the US," says Arindam Roy, director, EdXCare International. "But Britain has lost some of its advantages ever since the visa rules were changed." He adds that his agency regularly receives emails from students they have helped get accepted in British universities complaining against the government's strict anti-immigration policies.

"The cash bond is highly objectionable, especially if we look at it from a student's perspective — are they saying that all Indian students are going there only to become illegal immigrants?" says Abhishake De Sarkar, director, Advent Education, an overseas education agency based in Calcutta.

Others say the salary cap with regard to Tier 2 visas is "absurd". "The annual 20,300 starting salary is hardly attainable even by freshers from top schools," says Iran Sinha, manager, business development, Global Reach, an education consultancy company.

To top it all, most UK universities have reportedly witnessed a huge hike in tuition fees over the past few years. They have often been accused of treating Indian and other foreign students as "cash cows" since international students are charged up to four times as much as UK students, The Times, London, said in an August 9, 2013 report.

Yet the British High Commission maintains that fees for international students have not risen significantly. "The big change has been the cost of higher education for UK students," says the commission. "There are a variety of funding structures for local and international students. British universities remain competitive in their fees and, importantly, in the quality of education they offer."

Some feel the drop in Indian students would deprive many UK universities — some of which are said to be employing "agents" to ensure a steady flow of foreign students — of a substantial part of their revenue. "To get Indian students — despite the new visa rules — many UK universities are relying on agents," says Roy of EdXCare. "Barring Oxford, Cambridge, the University of London and some others, UK universities have either one or multiple agents in each country. These universities offer up to 25 per cent of the tuition fees (average 2,500) as commission to these agents. This massive commission structure has to be borne by students."

But almost every university in the UK has expressed to the British government its disapproval of the stoppage of PSW, increase in visa fees and the 3,000 cash bond. "Oxford University has worked hard to minimise the impact government policy changes on immigration will have on current and prospective students," says Ruth Collier, head of press and information office, University of Oxford. "Our priority is recruiting the very best students, wherever they are in the world, and we have lobbied the government not to enact policies that will be detrimental to world-class universities."

Others too have been vociferous in their protests. "We have protested through our vice-chancellor and the Association of Universities in the UK," says Kausik Mitra, education adviser in India, University of Sussex. "Sussex is interested in quality students who can benefit the university as well as the British economy in future through their unstinting hard work."

Mitra adds that the university is not going to "stand for low quality students who would look for ordinary non-relevant jobs after their degrees are over". In fact, there is a note of caution in this regard from India-based consultants as well. "All said and done, the UK boasts of some world class universities," says Iran Sinha of Global Reach. "So Indian students should primarily focus on studying hard and getting quality degrees from reputed UK universities."

He says there has been no dramatic drop, particularly from eastern India, in the number of meritorious students looking for quality education in the UK so that they can land lucrative jobs back home.

The UK government says that it's doing its bit to attract more international students. "A newly launched international education strategy sets a target of at least a 15-20 per cent rise in the number of higher education students over the next five years," says the high commission. "All legitimate students are welcome, have the chance to work during and after study and will find the UK friendly and safe."

 

Top 5 destinations for Indian students

Destination                 Number of Students

1United States            103,968

2 United Kingdom       38,205

3 Australia                   20,429

4 New Zealand            6,650

5 Canada                     4,617 (2009)

 

VISA BLUES

Percentage drop in number of students from some non EU countries in 2011-12

India 23.5%

Pakistan 13.4 %

Saudi Arabia 4.0 %

Number of Chinese students increased by 16.9%

 

Scholarships for UK universities

• Chevening Scholarships (www.chevening.org/)

• Commonwealth Scholarships (www.csfp-online.org/)

• Commonwealth Shared Scholarship Scheme (http://cscuk.dfid.gov.uk/apply/shared-scholarships/)

• Rhodes Scholarships (www.rhodesscholar.org/)

• Clarendon Scholarships at University of Oxford (www.clarendon.ox.ac.uk/about/)

• Reach Oxford Undergraduate Scholarship (www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate_courses/student_funding/reach_oxford.html)

• Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation (www.inlaksfoundation.org/default.aspx)

• University of Cambridge Nehru Scholarships (www.cambridgetrust.org/scholarships/scholarship/?award=43)

• Imperial College India Foundation PhD Scholarships (www3.imperial.ac.uk/international/prospective/newscholarships/icifscholarships)

Additional reporting by Prasun Chaudhuri