KB: I am the third generation of my family in India to be educated in Britain. Both grandfathers were educated here, my mother, my brother and now me and I have seen the power of bridge building between countries that’s generations on.
I was the youngest university chancellor in the country when I was chancellor of Thames Valley University, (now the University of West London) for five years up to 2010 and now I am chancellor of the University of Birmingham. Just this year I have taken over as chair of the advisory board of the Cambridge University Judge Business School, so I am quite involved with higher education in Britain, and recently was appointed as president of UKCISA, which of course represents all international students in the country.
“I have seen the power of bridge building between countries that’s generations on”
The PIE: How did the APPG get started?
KB: We found there was a huge amount of interest about international students in parliament and with the way that [international education] has been so badly damaged with the coalition government and the current government.
We felt that there was a need to start an All Party Parliamentary Group focusing on international students, given that it is such a big part of our economy. If you look at international students, they are one of our biggest export earners – they bring in up to £14bn directly or indirectly to the economy and are one our most important elements of soft power in the country, in terms of the bridges that are built with countries, the number of world leaders that have been educated at British universities at any one time. And they enrich our universities, they enrich the experience for our domestic students.
The PIE: And what are you hoping to achieve through the APPG?
KB: The objective is to have at least two meetings a year and also to be a voice in parliament on an ongoing basis for international students in parliament. We’ve seen the thrill of the way it has been received, the reception it has had straight away within parliament and the higher education community – everyone has been very happy to hear that the APPG has been formed.
The PIE: You say international students have been “badly damaged” by government policy – what have been the biggest missteps in this area?
KB: On the one hand, the government says that there are no limits to the number of international students; on the other hand, it continues to include international students as immigrants and therefore they are included in the net student immigration figures, which the government has a specific target to reduce.
As long as the government keeps including international students within net immigration figures, the message to the outside world and to international students wanting to come here is actually Britain wants to reduce them, unlike our competitor countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, who classify international students specifically for the purposes of net migration.
“That one gesture, I know personally the Prime Minister himself is willing to do”
We can do the same thing and it would send a very strong signal to the whole world and to the international student community that we are not treating you as immigrants – that one gesture, which I know personally the Prime Minister himself is willing to do but because of the immigration rhetoric which is so central to this EU referendum campaign, the government is not doing anything about it.
The PIE: You spearheaded the introduction of the post-study work visa that was then abolished in 2012. Do you wish you could see it brought back?
KB: If you look at the statistics of Indian students, for example, after the two-year postgraduate work visa was abolished, the figures have plummeted by 50%. So the reality is that the government is saying that students can stay on and work through the Tier 2 system, but in practical terms you talk to international students and they find it very difficult to find employers to sponsor them.
Let alone the threshold of the money, the hoops you have to go through to get an employer to sponsor you just practically makes it very difficult. If they reintroduced the postgraduate work visa that would help enormously, the figures would increase significantly. What is there to be scared of? The government is out of tune with the public, 75% of the public when they were surveyed say that international students should be allowed to stay on and work after they graduate.
“What is there to be scared of? The government is out of tune with the public”
The new Australian High Commissioner was saying, when I met her recently, ‘I want to thank you Britain for your immigration policies, because you are sending students to us when they would go to you before’. They look upon students as a filter when it comes to immigrants, by saying an international student who has paid the fees, who wants to stay on and work in Australia, we welcome them because they are going to add to our economy.
We think exactly the opposite view where Theresa May wants to kick out international students the day they graduate and it is just so short sighted and economically illiterate. We have for the first time since the last budget said we want to increase international students and we have these immigration rules that are in any case are preventing us from achieving any targets.
The PIE: I know the Home Office rhetoric around bogus tests and the ETS scandal has also had a big impact on the UK’s reputation in India.
KB: The government are absolutely right to clamp down on bogus colleges, no one would argue with that. The way that the government has dealt with, suddenly taking away, for example the permission for international universities to recruit international students and then the existing students are given just a couple of months to find another place, it is so unfair, it is not the student’s fault, so the way that the government has dealt with international students is just sending out all the wrong messages, particularly to a country like India, where they literally feel like they are not welcome.
Some of the headlines when Theresa May said she wanted international students to leave the day they graduated in newspapers, were ‘Take our money and get out’ was the way that it was portrayed which is completely not good for universities.
“Lost enrichment to our universities, lost enrichment to our economy”
As countries, like India and China, go through a growth stage, we should be riding on that wave and partnering with the demand for higher education from these countries, instead we are putting them off. If you look at that, what we are losing out on and have lost out on in the past six years, every year we are losing out on billions of pounds and extra opportunities of lost income to this country, lost enrichment to our universities, lost enrichment to our economy, that’s how short-sighted Theresa May’s policies are.
The PIE: And are you optimistic that raising the profile of these issues through the APPG will effect change?
KB: Absolutely. I think that the more that we are able to do with a credible voice, such as this new APPG along with UKCISA, along with the Russell group, along with the universities individually, along with parliamentarians within the parliaments of both houses, the government had got to listen. They can’t just not listen when it is coming from all quarters.
The PIE: What impact do you think Britain’s potential exit from the EU might have on international education in the country?
KB: Well if you look at the recent Hobsons report, sure enough, as we predicted, international students feel it is important for Britain to stay in the EU and it would influence their decision [to come and study here].
“International students feel it is important for Britain to stay in the EU”
It is a hugely important factor and is consistent with everyone around the world, whether it is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or with anyone I speak to in India; whether it is business people or politicians, they all say we should stay in the European Union so that is not scaremongering, this is reality. People outside the UK believe, including our international students, that we should stay in the EU.