Home ministers don’t often make very impressive heads of government. The foreign ministry is a far better stepping stone, the reason being that the home office chair is far too narrowly focused on domestic issues to naturally allow its occupant a glimpse of the broader global vision that ought to come with being, say, a prime minister. Theresa May, one of the longest-serving home ministers in post-War Britain, is an example.
As home minister in the government led by David Cameron, she travelled to India and was told about the Indian view of the UK’s immigration problem in clear terms. She came back to London and announced plans to enforce swingeing cuts in the number of foreign students allowed in the UK. Now, as Prime Minister, her government has gone and done it again.
As the UK lurches to the right in tandem with the US, it is once again immigration that has taken centre-stage in British public policymaking and rhetoric. And the first axe once again has fallen on foreign students, impacting on aspiring students from India more heavily than others.
May’s successor, British home minister Amber Rudd, in a speech to the ruling Conservative party conference in October announced a crackdown on foreign students and workers—she also means students who go on to work—as the first step in the UK’s immigration control plans.
Using the term “British people” more than half-a-dozen times in her speech in Birmingham, Rudd gave an outline of how she plans to “tackle” immigration so that foreign workers do not end up “taking the jobs that British people could do”.
In the long term, she said, the idea is to bring down European immigration (the whole point of the Brexit vote to opt out of the European Union), in the medium term “by reforming the student and work route eventually” and the short-term plan is to take “action to help communities affected by high levels of immigration, stopping people coming here that threaten our security”.
There is no official word yet on the numbers, unlike the previous administration’s goal of cutting net migration to “tens of thousands”. That goal remained unattained, and we do not know what the current government has in mind. Yet, The Guardian reported this week, citing senior university figures, that these cutbacks may be far more severe than anticipated—one reported figure nearly halving foreign student numbers from the current 300,000 to 170,000.
She also announced what she called a new £140 million “controlling migration fund to ease the pressure on public services in areas of high migration”. Actually, it is not a new plan at all—first proposed by former prime minister Gordon Brown, it was a more modest £50-million fund that prime minister Cameron said he would like to follow up on. Unlike much of the rhetoric at the time, Brown and his predecessor, Tony Blair, both understood that globalization has its winners and losers, and that it was important for wealthy countries, too, to develop their workforce, something that needs the government to work alongside the private sector.
The problem with Rudd’s three-stage plan is that in the best case scenario, it’s part of the Great Unknown of British policymaking—we haven’t yet begun to talk about negotiations for Brexit, let alone launch negotiations, and we are already dreaming about cutting European numbers. In the worst-case scenario, it is unworkable—not entirely unlike Donald Trump’s plan for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the US.
Some of Rudd’s figures and assertions have been challenged by the UK Association for International Student Affairs, an independent advisory body, as “either inaccurate or misleading”. For instance, Rudd claims the current system allows all students, irrespective of their talents and the university’s quality, favourable employment prospects when they stop studying. In fact, only 5,000 international students out of 430,000 were able to meet the stringent tests to qualify to work last year.
But the biggest problem with the plan is the vilification of foreign students. This is the point about Indian students. It is true that under the Brown administration, some young Indian men and women falsified their qualifications to enter the UK. It is equally true, however, that many of these youngsters were duped by dishonest British scamsters and fly-by-night colleges. They found themselves turning up in a foreign land expecting to be educated to a high standard, only to find that their so-called “college” either did not exist or was a polytechnic offering courses no better than what they could have accessed in any medium-size Indian town at less than half the cost.
Many Indian students were left destitute because of this dereliction of duty (you can’t get away from the fact that they were allowed in by British authorities). Temples and Gurdwaras—set up by Indian immigrants—gave them shelter and fed them.
What will be the impact of such cuts? Indian students will be impacted the most simply because of the sheer numbers they make up, although they are increasingly headed for American universities now.
With foreign students generating more than £10 billion in annual revenue for British universities (it was £13.5 billion in 2013, incidentally), that would be an extraordinary step to take for a nation still struggling with the effects of its last recession.
The economic powerhouses of the future—China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa and others—know that neither the British vote to leave the European Union nor the rise of Donald Trump in the US can reverse the wheels of globalization.
For India, the British move is no more than a temporary setback. The British, however, will merely end up cutting their nose to spite the face.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1