Rishi Sunak’s visa politics has implications for Indian students

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Right now, Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party is on a losing wicket in British politics. (Photo: POOL/AFP)
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Right now, Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party is on a losing wicket in British politics. (Photo: POOL/AFP)


  • As Britain's political landscape shifts, Rishi Sunak's decisions could reshape the future for thousands of Indian students. Will he choose short-term political gain or the long-term benefits of youthful talent?

Does the political survival of Britain’s first Indian-origin prime minister call for the sacrifice of the dreams of thousands of Indian students aspiring to study in the UK and find a job there to pay off the loans they have taken to finance their education? 

We hope Rishi Sunak will rise above the primitive instinct to make sacrifices and instead turn fortune's grimace into a smile.

Right now, Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party is on a losing wicket in British politics. It has lost all recent by-elections and city council elections. The Labour Party leads them in opinion polls by big margins. The Scottish Nationalist Party is losing its appeal with many voters in Scotland, who are now likely to vote Labour, probably bringing Labour’s tally of lawmakers from Scotland back to majority levels in the next round of British general elections.

Read More: Britain’s No-Growth Conservatives

Sunak is not necessarily to blame for voter disenchantment with the Tories. They have been in power since 2010, and the natural accumulation of anti-incumbency over nearly 14 years could be crippling by itself. 

Then there are Boris Johnson’s shenanigans during Covid – cake and champagne parties at 10 Downing Street when all of Britain was locked down and people were prevented from travel even to meet their ailing relatives, and deliberate lying about such hypocrisy – that have thoroughly put off traditional Tory voters.

Liz Truss, who briefly succeeded Johnson as prime minister, made a hash of her Budget by proposing tax cuts without getting them evaluated by the Budget Office for their implication for the exchequer, irking bond vigilantes and sending bond yields spiking. This ruined the normal Conservative claim to fiscal credibility.

Britain is currently experiencing buyer’s remorse over Brexit. Many who voted for Brexit feel they were not fully informed of the consequences. They blame Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, for getting Brexit wrong and the Tories in general for foisting a Brexit referendum on the population without educating them on all the implications of Britain’s departure from the European Union.

And This: The British economy is haunted by the ghosts of Brexit

The blame is spread across a spectrum of Tory leaders, but the job of fixing the problem and ending voter disenchantment falls to the incumbent leader of the party, Rishi Sunak. He is faced with a hard choice. While winning over fresh voters is hard, retaining existing supporters is relatively easy. 

However, a hardcore nativist segment is being wooed away from the Conservative Party by the new right-wing populist formation, Reform UK. Its platform is that out-of-control immigrants are overrunning Old Blighty, forever destroying the true British spirit.

To prevent further erosion of Tory support to the anti-immigrant Reform UK, Sunak has been acting tough on immigration. His government has passed legislation to overcome judicial objections to a longstanding plan to send would-be immigrants to Rwanda, where they would live far away from Britain while their asylum claims are processed. 

Now, the government has proposed to greatly reduce the scope of the Graduate Route Visa (GRV) scheme to limit the number of immigrants who come to stay in Britain by pursuing higher education there. Only the best and the brightest would be allowed to stay on under the proposed amendment.

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The GRV scheme gives a student who completes a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Britain two years of residence in the country after their studies to look for and find a job. Those who do a PhD have an extra year. If a graduate finds a job, the employer can sponsor a visa for further stay. Without the GRV, students would have to return to their home countries as soon as they complete their studies.

This would adversely affect students from India, who accounted for 42% of the 89,000 GRV visas issued over the last two years. Indian students, for the most part, take loans to finance their study abroad and hope to repay the loan by subsequent earnings in the country where they study.

If the GRV scheme is closed, it would effectively end the dream of studying in Britain for Indian students, except for a tiny section that can fund its British education without the help of a loan. 

The National Indian Students and Alumni Union, UK, has petitioned the government against any move to end the GRV. They cite the finding of the government’s Migration Advisory Committee that there is hardly any misuse of the visa scheme to warrant its termination.

The association of British universities, Universities UK, is worried that truncating the scope of GRV would dent the supply of foreign students, a major source of income for the British higher education system, which caps the fees for residents but allows universities to levy higher fees on external students.

Graduates who stay on in Britain represent a skilled talent pool that can enrich the British economy. The long-term benefit of youth immigration, particularly of skilled youth immigration, is self-evident for ageing societies of Europe, where the native working-age population faces decline even as the skill levels required of the workforce to keep up with productivity gains in other rich countries keep rising.

The choice before Sunak is between short-term political gain by placating nativists with anti-immigration policies and long-term economic benefit by encouraging educated youthful immigrants to make Britain their home. We hope the British prime minister would cut his short-term losses for long-term gains.

Also Read: No, really. Rishi Sunak is a right-winger

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