British prime minister Theresa May’s much talked-about India visit, her first outside the European Union after she took charge, didn’t make many headlines.
May’s agenda with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi was simple: she wanted to boost trade between the UK and its oldest partner. But New Delhi had other issues to discuss, mainly around visa costs and approvals for Indian students and working professionals. Modi wants the UK to increase the number of visas granted to Indians, especially since Indian student enrollments in the UK have almost halved since 2011. The drop was because of the UK’s policy of not permitting them to work following completion of studies.
In September, when Modi met May at the G-20 summit in China, he had told her that such regulations negatively impact Indian working professionals who want to visit the country.
May, who belongs to the Conservative Party, has stuck to her hardline stance during last week’s visit. “We have, I believe, a good system. We will be talking about trade here,” she said on Nov. 7.
Critics have said that this could jeopardise any new potential trade deal between the two countries and could tarnish Britain’s reputation among Indian immigrants. Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, had accompanied May to India. He said in a blog post that the UK’s visa policies are “fairly insulting” to some Indians:
Indians who studied in the UK say we don’t act as if we are good friends any more. They say we want their money and business but are not willing to teach their children, even if they pay full whack.
They hear that our universities are allowed to teach and take the money only if Indian students are rich enough not to need a job, or can graduate to a job that pays over the odds in some parts of the UK.
The prime minister says that it shouldn’t matter. She says she doesn’t think they should care about us making it easier for students to come to the UK. She can’t be hearing what I’m hearing. She just wants free trade with India. Free trade means free trade, she says, good for all and nothing to do with students. She even insists that students should be labelled as migrants, which is completely potty. Even Nigel Farage didn’t want that.
In any case, Indians feel doubly insulted by this position.
Burnett added that international students are worth more than many major trade deals announced this year. “Ms May is announcing that her trade mission to Europe has seen £1 billion in deals announced for the UK. But remember that international students are worth £14 billion to the UK economy every year. That’s equivalent to more than one major trade mission a month,” he said.
May has said that the UK could “consider further improvements” to the visa policies if they can crack down on the high number of illegal Indian immigrants in the country.
Meanwhile, India and the UK signed deals worth £1.2 billion during the visit. However, there were no specific discussions on visas—much to India’s dismay.