India and the UK have had a long and robust relationship in the field of higher education. Nevertheless, in the post-Brexit period, the UK has experienced changes in the visa regime which along with its new education policies has the potential to completely overhaul its relationship with India in the Higher Education Sector. In this blog, Debanjali Ghosh strives to assess the future trajectory of the India-UK relationship in the HES by analysing some of the possible trends.
Written by Debanjali Ghosh, PhD Research Scholar at the Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
This blog is part of a policy report called "NEXTEUK – EU and UK Relations: Where will we be in 2031?".
India and the UK have had a long and robust relationship in the field of higher education. The latter’s reputation for educational excellence along with the high recognition given to its degrees in India, familiarity rooted in the colonial past, and the absence of a communication barrier has made the UK one of the most attractive destinations for higher education in Europe among Indians. Nevertheless, in the post-Brexit period, the UK has experienced changes in the visa regime which along with its new education policies has the potential to completely overhaul its relationship with India in the Higher Education Sector (HES). This article strives to assess the future trajectory of the India-UK relationship in the HES by analysing some of the possible trends.
The UK’s influence on India’s HES can be traced as far back as the colonial era which introduced for the first time a system of mass-based universal education that transcended class and caste barriers (Tschurenev and Mhaskar, 2021: 5). It also deviated from the traditional curriculum of the indigenous education system which focused primarily on religion and led to a shift towards scientifically-oriented modern western education. Both in the pre- and post-independence periods, several national leaders chose the UK as their destination for higher education and the country’s preeminent position as a study abroad destination for Indians has continued into the 21st century. While pre-Brexit figures reveal that among all the Indian students in the European Union (EU), 76.9 percent were concentrated in the UK (Mukherjee and Chanda, 2012: 11), post-Brexit data from 2021 notes that Indians continue to form one of the largest communities of international students in the UK (Study in UK International Student Statistics in UK 2021).
Brexit has brought with it both opportunities and challenges. There is great potential for both India and the UK to collaborate further in the HES, but at the same time, the UK is likely to face certain challenges in attracting Indian students. The following section highlights some of the positive developments that the India-UK relationship might witness in the near future.
First, the mobility of Indian students to the UK for higher education will continue to increase in the next few years. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) between 2015/16 and 2019/20 reveals that there has been a steady increase in the number of non-UK domiciled (non-EU citizens) students i.e., international students in the country’s HES. Similar data is also available for Indian students specifically for the same period and reveals a similar trend. The UK’s new visa regime prioritises skill over nationality. This coupled with a greater number of post-study employment opportunities has created more stay-back options for Indian students after completing their degree and considerably increased the UK’s attractiveness as a study abroad destination. It is reflected in the data presented in the table above which shows a drastic increase in student mobility between 2015-16 and 2019-20 and is also strongly indicative of a continued increase in student mobility from India to the UK in the future.
Second, the UK has adopted the International Education Strategy in 2019 which seeks to raise the country’s education export to £35 billion per annum by 2030 (HM Government, 2019: 2) and has identified India as one of the priority countries (HM Government, 2021: 9) for increased engagement. Interestingly, this has coincided with the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 of the Government of India which, in fulfilling its aim to provide quality education at an affordable cost to the people, is set to allow 100 top global universities to operate in India. Thus, while both the UK’s International Education Strategy and the Turing Scheme aims to partner with India (UK Government, 2021: 46), the latter’s NEP also endeavours to work with foreign universities (Government of India, 2020: 39). The mutual desire for partnership coupled with the fact that several of the UK’s universities are ranked in the top 100 makes a closer relationship in this sector extremely likely in the near future with some of the UK’s universities setting up campuses across India.
Third, greater engagement can also be anticipated within pre-existing frameworks such as India-UK Education Forum, the UK and India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) and the British Council. The relationship between India and the UK has continued to thrive in the post-Brexit period through initiatives like the “Generation UK-India programme” (2016) and the Third Phase (2016-2020) of UKIERI (High Commission of India in the UK, 2019: Education Brief). These platforms endeavour to promote greater cooperation and encourage future collaborations between India and the UK in the HES by strengthening old partnerships and facilitating new ones. Their role is expected to be strengthened further through a greater allocation of funds and stronger initiatives to connect with Indian educational institutions.
Finally, measures to tap into India’s online education sector, estimated to be worth $3.5 billion by 2022 (HM Government, 2021: 30), are also likely forthcoming, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic which has led to the emergence of new forms of hybrid learning.
Nevertheless, there are also some challenges for the UK to overcome.
Firstly, any steep surge in the influx of Indian students might eventually be offset by the lack of financial assistance from the universities, which are currently apprehensive about impending resource crunches as a result of Brexit. A vast majority of the Indian students continue to remain dependent on funding for studying abroad in the UK and the loss of the Erasmus Mundus programme has already been a big blow for them. Further loss of EU projects and funding along with accompanying uncertainties related to the fee hikes will become a damper for student mobility to the UK. It might also result in the concentration of Indian students in particular regions, such as Scotland, where the cost of studying and living are believed to be comparatively easier on the pocket (Kirk, 2013). In such a scenario, only some parts of the country are likely to benefit from the revenue generated by Indian students in the future.
Secondly, the UK is also likely to face stiff competition from the EU, which may jeopardise both its efforts to capture India’s education market that the NEP has opened up as well as its distinguished position as the premier study abroad destination in Europe. With Brexit, the EU has lost a large chunk of its Indian students but both the organisation and some of its member states have adopted strong initiatives to increase their visibility in the Indian education market. Cooperation in higher education is an important component in EU-India relations (European Union External Action Service, 2020). Besides, countries like Germany have increased their attractiveness through easy visas paired with English-based programmes, low tuition fees, ample scholarships and post-study employment opportunities (Mukherjee and Chanda, 2012: 24 and Haaften, 2021: 26). India’s bilateral partnerships in higher education with Germany and France have been gradually increasing, underpinned by mutual recognition of each other’s degrees, and is likely to keep developing further. Among the Scandinavian EU members too there has been a keen interest in India, which has led to the use of platforms such as the Nordic Centre in India to showcase Nordic universities. Moreover, the introduction of foreign European languages in Indian schools (Government of India, 2020: 15) will further increase the chances of availing opportunities offered by the EU and lessen the intimidating language barrier regarding non-English speaking countries. Hence, with multiple alternative study abroad destinations emerging in Europe, the UK is most likely to lose its hegemonic position.
Overall, Brexit has the potential to further increase the UK’s attractiveness as a study abroad destination for Indians but easy visas without matching financial aid have the potential to endanger the UK’s predominant position in India’s education market. How the UK-EU relationship will play out remains to be seen, but in non-European third countries like India, their relationship will possibly be that of competitors in the education market. The UK’s International Education Policy has identified Indonesia, Vietnam and Nigeria as priority countries as well (GOV.UK, 2021). However, like India, these too are classified as lower- middle-income countries by the World Bank (The World Bank Open Data for India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Nigeria) and are beneficiaries of the EU’s Erasmus Plus programme. Hence, in competing with the EU and its member states like Germany, which are able to provide lucrative funding packages to international students, the UK will have to redouble its efforts. Moreover, the UK’s access to EU projects and funding, the potential for easy collaborations and exchanges with institutes in other parts of Europe, and access to data from the continent add to its attractiveness as a study abroad destination. The UK will thus have to ensure measures for its continued participation in EU projects and promote newer frameworks for collaborations. In a related point, bilateral agreements between the UK’s institutes of higher education and their other European counterparts will also continue to mushroom to fill in the gap that Brexit has created.
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