When a 20-year-old Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was advised to study law in Britain by a family friend, he had to weigh the pros and cons like any student today. He could qualify for the bar in London in half the time it would take him to do a BA in Bombay.
The challenge then, as now, was money. He had no scholarships or patrons forthcoming. Ultimately, the young Mohandas managed to cover his expenses through the sale of his wife’s jewellery and help from his brother. He set sail for the Isles in 1888 and the rest, as we know it, is history.
More than a century since, and the same rationale applies to students who want to pursue their education in the UK. A master’s programme is doable in half the time of a master’s in India, but costs several times as much. And though the time needed to travel to Britain has been cut short by months, the red tape around doing so has increased. More than 30,000 Indians pursue their studies in the UK today, under visa regulations that grow tighter by the year.
The number of Indian students in the UK in 2015 was half that of 2011. The trend was spiralling downward much before Brexit, but now that Brexit is here – bringing with it a political landscape that is anti-immigration (and where students are considered migrants). Is Britain still a safe bet for a higher education?
Why go abroad?
The boom in Indian students travelling abroad began in the year 2000, following the Tony Blair government’s drive to attract more foreign students to Britain. By 2009, the number of Indians studying abroad had grown by 256 percent, according to an IIM-B study by Chanda and Mukherjee.
The reasons were twofold – a burgeoning middle class had emerged that could afford the costs of studying abroad (even if it meant taking out a home loan), and the same felt the quality of education in India would not suffice. The second reason doesn’t mean that Indian institutes like the IIMs or IITs were lacking – just that they didn’t have enough seats for everybody who desired and could afford quality education.
Chanda and Mukherjee’s 2012 study showed that while Indians in 2011 were turning away from studying in Australia due to its perceived ‘racist’ image, Britain’s high cost of education would prove to be unsustainable for students, and could decline. By 2013, the tides had reversed, and a slew of immigration reforms made international students feel less welcome in the UK. The decline in Indian students is an expensive pill for the UK to swallow – overseas students can pay up to twice the tuition fees of British/EU nationals. For a master’s degree, this can often cross £18500, or 15 lakh rupees.
Tighter visa regulations meant that fewer students could stay back and work in the UK to pay off the loans they’d taken to study there. While a degree from a British university could improve their employability in India, the difference in payscale makes loan repayment unfeasible – if not impossible for a fresh graduate.
The twist is that Britain remains both tempting and foreboding as a destination. Britain continues to advertise its university education, with the British Council announcing one million pounds’ worth of scholarships in February, 2017. Every year, British universities send their best recruiters to such fairs and events, keeping an open ear to what students want and convincing them that Britain is where it’s at.
For Bhagya Sivaraman, all she saw were red flags when she searched for a job after graduating from her university:
One organization told me that they liked my application but that they couldn’t take me in because I was an Indian. That if they wanted me, they [would have] had to pay money [for a visa].
For Mohit Nambiar:
Studying in Britain had less to do with job prospects, and more to do with taking a welcome dive into academic research, building interesting relationships and working on myself.
He finished a Masters at the University of Manchester in 2015 and returned back to India.
Has Brexit affected how students feel about the UK?
In July, a survey by Hobson’s found that a third of international students outside of the EU were less likely to come to the UK following Brexit.
Nadia Lewis left the UK out of her radar entirely when applying for a Master’s in journalism:
I’m not applying because I was warned of the lack of job opportunities. But then, I’ve come to realize that it is the same all over, even the U.S. and rest of Europe; especially now with nationalism on the rise.
Another study, conducted by Red Bricks Research shortly after the EU Referendum, found that while most students felt the UK had become a less accepting place for international students, the value of its degrees would not change following departure from the EU.
What Brexit has done is driven the value of pound down, making it cheaper for international students. Ultimately, a degree is only as good as what people think of it, and if it’s just the experience that counts – then Indian students seem to be having good experiences while at university in the UK, just not so much in the job-hunts thereafter.
For students without a loan or deep pockets, an education in Britain might remain nothing more than a dream. For those who do go, the caveat of having to pay back a student loan without earning in pounds might end up as a nightmare.
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