British Prime Minister Theresa May made a symbolically important post-Brexit trip to India, but failed to remove significant obstacles to closer ties, in the view of Indian-born businessman and peer, Karan Bilimoria
I was very surprised and disappointed by the Prime Minister’s failure to make progress on an agreement on freedom of movement between the UK and India during her recent visit to India.
India, a nation comprised of 29 states and seven union territories, is one of the largest and most diverse markets in the world. It is embracing economic liberalisation at a fast pace and is growing at a remarkable rate, thanks in part to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political leadership and the resolve behind his economic vision for the nation.
One of the greatest reforms to take place in recent memory is the Goods and Services Bill, which is now set to transform India’s economy through simplifying taxation across all states and union territories, bringing the country’s 1.25 billion consumers into a single market and adding potentially 2 per cent to India’s GDP growth rate. India’s economy is already the fastest growing major economy in the world, including China.
The tax reforms show that Prime Minister Modi is intent on making India a great place to trade and do business. He is showing the power of the freedom of trade to transform markets and industries. And his vision is clear. The Make in India initiative, for example, sets out a clear target to increase manufacturing as a share of GDP from 16 to 25 per cent and to create 100 million jobs in the sector by 2022.
This is a vision of inclusive growth which will increase the number of skilled jobs and technical apprenticeships, as well as the opportunities for foreign companies to invest in new technologies and partner with India’s great universities and innovative businesses. Britain needs to do what it can to be front of the queue when trade negotiations open up, but Prime Minister May has failed to take the best opportunity she was presented.
Britain and India possess one of the strongest bonds between any two nations in the world. There are 1.5 million Indians living and thriving in the UK, by far our most successful immigrant population, and over 800 Indian firms in the UK, more than the number of firms in the rest of Europe put together. And in India, Britain is the largest G20 investor and employer, currently employing around 691,000 people.
India is home to the largest UK trade mission in the world, and, along with the British Council’s huge operation in India, the UK-India Business Council has three offices across the country, offering desk space for UK firms who want to launch their business operations there. And yet the Prime Minister failed to honour these encouraging ties with India on her most recent trade visit.
The recent UK-India Tech Summit was the perfect opportunity to outline how we can continue to ensure that the brightest and the best are allowed to work in the UK. Yet the week before the PM’s visit, Britain increased by 50 per cent the minimum salary an Indian IT worker must receive before they are allowed to come here.
Prime Minister May says nine out of ten applications are granted, and claims that there is a good system in place to ensure that the talented workers the country needs have access to Britain. However, expanding and emerging industries in the UK need their numbers bolstered by skilled Indian workers. Many fill vacant roles in the National Health Service, the IT industries and in manufacturing. Many others start business ventures in the UK, or use the UK as a global gateway from which they can build operations in Europe and beyond.
I was recently at the International Students Innovation Awards, hosted in London with the support of the Mayor, Sadiq Khan. Over 500 applicants had fought to be finalists in this competition, while I was honoured to have a place on the judging panel. The talent of the students coming to Britain is enormous, and it supports growth in a number of our most vital industries, from engineering and advanced manufacturing to cybersecurity. That is beside the crucial work that many foreign workers do for our public services. In our NHS and care sector alone there are as many as 130,000 EU workers playing a vital role in keeping care running, while 35.4 per cent of our doctors are foreign-born, including from India.
There are plenty of examples of the gift of foreign talent from the commercial sphere. Google, a digital giant of the kind sought after in the UK as much as in the US, was created in California’s Silicon Valley by an immigrant. What hope has the UK of emulating its success without the expertise and initiative of foreign students?
It is clear that we need to pay greater attention to who enters and leaves the country, but the government has been consistently getting it wrong, setting unrealistic targets and adopting economically illiterate policies.
The British public don’t consider international students as migrants, and indeed these students come to Britain, invest in their education at Britain’s top universities, and then they go home. Nor do the public mind foreign students working after they graduate to earn some money to pay for their education, gain work experience, contribute to our economy, pay taxes and continue to build even stronger links with the UK, which last generations. The government is out of tune with public opinion.
They are not coming here illicitly, and there should be no question of the quality of the education they come to receive, because that is beyond doubt. In Britain, we are proud to have, along with the US, the greatest universities to be found anywhere in the world.
Collaboration plays a role in most of the best quality research, and we should embrace it in every respect in British universities. When I spoke at a joint meeting between Punjab University at the British Council in Delhi, attended by Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, and General VK Singh, the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, I had a useful example to hand.
I am proud to be Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, one of the most international universities in the world. A year after signing a Memorandum of Understanding with Punjab University, it has already been a dynamic partnership and our joint research has made developments in areas such as women’s cancer. Where that impact can be measured, it has performed very well.
When Punjab University does research on its own it gets an impact rating of 1.37, and when University of Birmingham does research on its own, it gets an impact rating of 1.87. However, when the two universities work together, the joint research papers receive an impact rating of 5.64, more than three times the score that either university achieves individually, and virtually identical to the score achieved when the University of Birmingham conducts research jointly with Harvard University. Johnson even quoted these figures in the closing panel of the summit.
We urgently need the Prime Minister to review the evidence and reshape immigration policy that works for our economy. The real number of students coming to Britain and illicitly overstaying their visas could be as low as 1,500, but these figures are buried beneath unreliable estimates from the International Passenger Survey (IPS), suggesting that as many as 90,000 students remain in the country after their course has ended.
The IPS is not fit for purpose. Our immigration policy should be based on accurate figures and reintroducing visible exit checks at our airports, ports and borders would allow us to build a reliable and accurate picture of who is in the country and who is overstaying their visa.
We need to stop targeting international students and start to shape our immigration policies on evidence. The government needs to change its attitude towards international students, and send out a clear message to the world: that we want to increase the number of international students year on year, and that we value and appreciate international students, one of our largest and most important export earners, bringing in £14 billion to our economy and creating an additional 160,000 jobs.
Our universities are the jewel in the crown of Great Britain, and international students are our strongest form of soft power in the world.
Karan, Baron Bilimoria, is the founder and chairman of Cobra Beer, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, and the founding Chairman of the UK-India Business Council