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Lord Karan Bilimoria CBE

In the words of Lord Karan Bilimoria, he wears various hats. He is chancellor of the University of Birmingham, president of UKCISA, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on international students, president of the CBI, in addition to holding fellowships at Cambridge and Oxford. He took the time out of his busy schedule to tell The PIE what he is currently focusing on.


"Now that we have reached 600,000 in 2020/21, we should go for a million by 2030"

The PIE: What is new for the University of Birmingham? 

Karan Bilimoria: We have just opened up a state of the art AI-enabled campus in Dubai, where we’re the first Russell Group university to open up. The formal opening is in March, [but] it’s up and running now, and has a 5,000 student capacity. It will be for students from the whole region, not just the UAE, but also for India, Malaysia, Singapore, Africa.

I was speaking at the Indian High Commission [last week] regarding the Indian budget that has just come out and the good news is that the finance minister’s announced that foreign universities will be able to open up in India, which is something we’ve been asking for a long time and it now appears to be more and more imminent [following the announcement in the NEP in 2020]. We’re waiting for details on that.

When we are allowed to open up in India, I would imagine as soon as our Dubai campus is well established, we would be one of the universities – as a top 100 in the world – that would be keen to open in India. And I think there’ll be lots of British universities interested, because it’s a great opportunity. I’m not saying we’d definitely do it, but I know we’d certainly be interested.

The PIE: What needs to happen for Birmingham to commit to that?  

KB: The first thing is just for the Indian government to say you can do it. In the federal system, the states will be competing as well to have the university in their state, which is good. And then it’s a question of investment. We’ll be appraising investment.

“In this budget in India, another announcement was a digital university”

Linked to that, we’ve had another bit of good news around the prestigious [highly competitive] IITs in India. Now the Indian government has reached out to the UK universities like Birmingham, asking to partner with IITs.

One of the options is an IIT actually opening a Birmingham IIT Centre, which would be a physical centre in Birmingham where we would have faculty from the IIT, from Birmingham, and students doing research and exchange.

And this builds on the UK-India Education and Research Initiative projects, which have been so successful. We’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of these research projects with the UKIERI scheme.

While they are temporary one-off projects, if you have an IIT Birmingham centre, then you have phenomenal research coming out of there in the long term. It’s a permanent institution collaboration.

In this budget in India, another announcement was a digital university, which again has the potential for us to collaborate on with our Open University, which has done such great work here in the UK. We’ve got a lot of expertise in that and hopefully we can partner with this new initiative of India.

The PIE: Can I ask you a bit about the APPG that you’re involved in? What’s it looking at at the moment? 

KB: Our 2018 report on international students was very impactful in that we made certain recommendations we asked the government and [for] two of them, government has listened.

One was to set a target for international students. We didn’t have a target for the number of international students. The second was to bring back the two-year post-graduation work visa, and both of those have now been instituted.

We’ve now, I’m proud to say, crossed that 600,000 target well ahead of time. I was asked at a seminar [last week], ‘what do you think the target should be now by 2030?’ And I said it should be one million. Now that we have reached 600,000 in 2020/21, we should go for a million by 2030.

Of course, Australia set up a target some years ago of 750,000, and in the words of our former prime minister David Cameron, it is a global race.

“In the words of our former prime minister David Cameron, it is a global race”

It’s a race, we’ve got to take note of [other countries’] strategies, like Australia’s, to make sure that we stay ahead of the game as one of the top two choices for international students in the world along with America.

The PIE: Do you think the UK can overtake the US?

KB: In many ways, there are ways in which we can overtake America. I mean, I came to study here, a lot of my contemporaries from India went to study in America. And I think our universities offer a different experience. [The US has] a different experience and they’re both excellent. If you look at the rankings, one year, one of our universities is number one, one year it’s an American university.

The number one reason why international students were [previously] not choosing the UK as the number one choice was the lack of post-study work opportunities.

I initiated the two-year post-study work visa in Parliament in 2007, when I got cross-party support, and the government listened and it was brought in in 2008. The number of Indian students rocketed after that. And then it was taken away by Theresa May in 2012, and the numbers plummeted. And when Boris Johnson became PM he promised to bring it back. The numbers of Indian students are just escalating now… [under] this one million target there would be many more Indian students.

Another thing is that Indian students are still not on the list of low-risk countries. China was added to that list some time ago. And I’ve been asking the British government a long time to do that, that India should be on that list.

The PIE: On the topic of post-study work, do UK universities need to do anything on that in terms of actually getting students into relevant jobs?

KB: It’s still early days, but it works so well because there’s no restriction, the students can pick any job. And universities have a career service so students can use that. This is me now wearing my president of the CBI hat, we’ve made our employers aware of it. And so they know they can take on a student for two years or three years for PhD and they’d be eligible to stay on after that under the points-based system.

Of course now we have a labour shortage across the board, we have very low unemployment. In fact, the unemployment rate only slightly higher than it was before the pandemic.

The PIE: And how do you feel about whether there’s a risk that students will get into jobs which they don’t need degrees for?

KB: They will get the best jobs that they can. And there are many [benefits], one is the work experience that they’re going to get. Whatever job they’re going into is work experience. Secondly, they are earning money which will help them to pay for their education. And in doing so, they will contribute to our exchequer and will be paying taxes on that, which is good for our economy as well. And the other thing is, they have two more years or three more years to further build the bridges with the UK.

“International students are one of our strongest elements of soft power”

International students are one of our strongest elements of soft power because they are permanent ambassadors for the UK and for the UK relationship with their countries. And I’m an example. I’m the third generation in my family. Both of my grandfathers were educated here and my mother and my uncle, and I’m the third generation in Britain.

We have more world leaders, along with the US, that have been educated in British universities than any other country in the world. Through our Chevening scheme, which only started in the 1980s… 30 world leaders that have [been educated here].

My mother, who’s 85 years old, who went to Birmingham University, still keeps in touch with her Birmingham friends to this day. [They are some of her] closest friends. International students enrich the experience of the domestic students, and they build this amazing friendship around the world.

The PIE: What does your mother think about you being chancellor of Birmingham, of her old university? 

KB: She came over for my installation in 2014. She’s over the moon. I was very happy myself. I mean, I’m only the seventh chancellor in their 122 year history. Some of my predecessors stayed a long time. Anthony Eden the prime minister was chancellor for 28 years. She was absolutely thrilled. I mean, I was very happy and in my acceptance speech, I remember looking up and speaking to my grandfather and saying, ‘Look, I’m sorry, I never attended Birmingham University, but I’m here at last’.

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