'We don't feel welcome' - why aspiring students are thinking twice about the UK

Students at an education fair in Mumbai talk about the visa rules

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The numbers of Indians studying in the UK fell for the first time in the last year, many say due to changes in visa rules. As David Cameron prepares to visit India, how is the issue affecting Indians' perception of Britain?

At an entrance to a five star hotel in a plush area of Mumbai, it is hard to move for the crowds.

This beachside hotel is a regular haunt for Bollywood stars and celebrities, but the hundreds of young Indians are not desperate to catch a glimpse of an action hero, or a supermodel.

They're here to get an education.

A number of ballrooms have been taken over for an international education fair.

British universities make up almost half of the hundred or so exhibitors at the event, organised by a private company, Edwise, which regularly hosts and facilitates foreign establishments in finding students.

Representatives from universities including Durham, Cardiff, Nottingham, Lancaster and York are all seated behind tables, poised for their sales pitch.

'Opportunity to settle'

The UK is a popular destination for Indian students, second only to the USA, but the appeal of a degree in Britain has lost some of its shine for many.

Start Quote

Jonathan Fernandes

It's a stupid decision. They should trust people a little more, not everyone is going to fool around, we go to build our lives and our career”

End Quote Jonathan Fernandes

"I know the educational standard of the UK is very renowned, so I would have preferred that, if the visa system hadn't been changed," says twenty-one year old Prachi Bhatt, who is weighed down by a pile of university prospectuses for Australia and Canada.

"I want to study, work and maybe settle abroad, and that's why I went for the other countries, because of the issues," she adds.

The issues he is referring to are the changes in visa rules for non-EU students, which restrict the ease with which a student can stay on in the UK, after their studies. In 2012 the post-study work visa was scrapped, which had earlier allowed students like Prachi to stay on for a further two years to find work.

Now, non-EU students who wish to stay in the UK can switch to Tier 2 immigration status, which means they have to qualify for employment under the points based system, and find a job which pays a minimum of £20,000.

A separate visa for entrepreneurs can also be applied for but only about 1,000 are issued a year.

Cachet

The coalition government announced the changes as part of its efforts to reduce net migration, and limit the numbers of bogus applications as well as those overstaying their visas, but many here believe it is deterring genuine, and talented students.

"It does affect everybody's decision, because once you're done with your course you want to look for a job in the country and settle for a bit. It's a good opportunity for every student to do that," says 21-year old Sasha Miranda, a fashion design student, who hopes to study in the USA or Canada.

TOP OVERSEAS DESTINATIONS FOR INDIAN STUDENTS

  • United States: 103,968
  • United Kingdom: 38,205
  • Australia: 20,429
  • New Zealand: 6,650
  • Canada: 4,617

Source: Unesco (2010)

"If you can't, it's like you're going for a course and just coming back."

She says the new rules do "make you feel unwelcome - that's why I prefer the US".

The numbers seem to suggest that the changes are making an impact.

Figures from the Higher Education Standards Authority (HESA) from January 2013, show that the number of Indians studying in the UK has fallen in the past academic year, down by some 24% (while the numbers coming from China have risen by almost one fifth).

A large number of educated and aspirational middle class Indian families still choose to send their children overseas for studies as the quality and standard of graduate and post graduate education (aside from engineering institutions) is still considered very limited in the country.

Research from the International Institute of Education showed that Indians were the second most mobile students in the world, after China.

'Stupid decision'

A 2012 report from the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore suggested that the number of Indian students choosing to go abroad rose by 256% between 2000 and 2009 from 53,266 to 189,629.

Indian students discuss opportunities at British universities at the fair India is the second largest international market for British universities

The cachet attached to studying overseas means many families spend years saving to be able to do so as the opportunity to work in their host country afterwards offers one way to recoup some of the fees.

That was a calculation for 24-year old Jonathan Fernandes, who hopes to study computer gaming overseas.

"The UK was never a proper option for me because everything is so expensive there and everything is going to be difficult for me later on because I am funding it through my parents, so I'd prefer Canada."

He repeats a sentiment many students at the fair share, that it "doesn't make sense" to return to India immediately after studies, that part of the package when it comes to studying abroad is a person's ability to gain international work experience to add to their skillset.

"It's a stupid decision, they should trust people a little more, not everyone is going to fool around, we go to build our lives and our career."

'Reassurance needed'

The UK is still an attractive destination for many Indian students, and the reputation of its educational institutions still holds strong among visitors to the fair. Changing immigration trends may be a driver for the visa changes, but they are also one reason 24-year old Bhavin Chauah, still sees the UK as a top destination.

Start Quote

The government needs to take steps which reassures international students and give them a reasonable window to work or intern along with getting a degree”

End Quote Ajay Sukhwani Director, Edwise

"As an Indian I'll get the back-up and support from other Indians living in the UK," he says. "It makes you feel more homely."

"Going to the UK has always been an agenda," says 22-year-old Rumela Basu, who hopes to pursue postgraduate journalism studies in Britain.

"The visa system does weigh on your mind a little bit...but for me personally, it's also about an experience and an exposure, but we look forward to changes which will help us work there for a while," she says optimistically.

Ajay Sukhwani, a director of Edwise, says the UK remains a popular destination but that interest has taken "a fair hit" because of the visa changes.

"The government needs to take steps which reassures international students and give them a reasonable window to work or intern along with getting a degree," he says.

David Cameron will be travelling with a delegation of university officials when he lands in India next week.

The message to him from this career fair, at least, is to make changes which will allow more people to seek work in the UK - for many here, studying abroad is about far more than just collecting a degree certificate.

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