February 17, 2013 8:11 pm

PM to walk migrant tightrope in India

David Cameron arrives in India this week with plans to snatch a $20bn jet fighter deal from the French and forge closer trade and investment links between London and New Delhi.

But if the prime minister is to succeed in these foreign policy objectives, he must first answer local criticism on an issue much closer to home: his moves to cut immigration and the resulting difficulties for Indians wanting to study or work in the UK.

Conservative ministers’ efforts to reduce migrant inflows and placate an anxious British public have resulted in a blinding array of changes to the immigration rules – a cap on skilled migrants from outside the EU, a crackdown on bogus international students and curbs on post-study employment. Immigration lawyers said Indian IT workers now struggle to get into Britain. UK universities fear that Indians are increasingly choosing to study in the US, Canada, or Australia.

Mr Cameron has tried to correct some common misunderstandings around his policies, telling the Indian press there is no cap on the number of foreign students allowed into the country and that British universities are open to Indian students who have good enough English to complete degrees here.

But some said appealing to UK voters with promises of a crackdown while trying to reassure affronted international migrants has only increased the confusion. Rajesh Agrawal, an Indian entrepreneur who arrived in Britain more than a decade ago and founded the foreign exchange business RationalFX, said the UK’s attitude to Indian migrants was still bafflingly unclear.

“It’s like [the prime minister] has closed the door to immigration, now he’s shouting from behind the door, ‘you’re very welcome, please come in’,” Mr Agrawal complained.

“When I speak to friends and family in India they increasingly have this view that the UK is extremely closed on immigration and that the controls in the UK are very tight,” the entrepreneur said.

He added that while technically accurate, the prime minister’s words of encouragement to Indians were inconsistent with how difficult it was comply with the new immigration policies. “Doing all the good talking is one thing but that has to be reflected by the rules and regulations in place.”

A major challenge for Mr Cameron will be defending last summer’s Home Office decision to strip London Metropolitan University of its right to sponsor international students – which left thousands of genuine foreign students stranded just as term was about to begin. This, in particular, left a bitter taste on the subcontinent. “London varsity crisis hits Brand Britain abroad”, ran a Hindustan Times headline.

Universities UK, the sector association, has worked to counter negative perceptions abroad. But official data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency released last month showed that enrolments of Indian students fell 10,000 between 2010-11 and 2011-12.

Nicola Dandridge, the group’s chief executive, said the fall was because new regulations have caused “tremendous misunderstandings”.

“The real problem in India is the unfair and inaccurate perception that it’s not possible to do post-study work in the UK,” she said.

Ms Dandridge acknowledged that for the prime minister, as for the universities themselves, formulating a clear message was difficult. “What we are trying to craft here is a sensible narrative that reflects the reality without putting people off,” she said.

Such sentiments ring hollow to Sir Andrew Green, a former diplomat and founder of the Migration Watch think-tank, who believes that the lobbying of groups such as Universities UK has contributed to a perception that Britain is unwelcoming.

“The problem being created for diplomats abroad is that the government is not getting its migration policies across properly to its own constituency here and these groups then voice their disapproval,” said Sir Andrew, who served as British ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia.

He is adamant that the prime minister should have no difficulty in talking tough in India when necessary.

“David Cameron will have many different audiences while he’s out there, and one of them is intelligent Indians, of which there are rather a lot,” Sir Andrew said. “He should be able to say, ‘the UK welcomes genuine students, but we have a problem with your bogus students … I hope you won’t think that’s a negative message.’ ”

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