The UK government has caused outrage across India with its decision last week to exclude Indian students from a new list of countries considered "low risk" in order to facilitate an easier visa application process to UK universities, even as they relaxed rules for professionals, including the IT and medical sectors.
In changes to its immigration policy tabled in the UK Parliament last week, the UK Home Office announced a relaxation of the Tier 4 visa category for overseas students from around 25 countries.
On a list already covering countries like the US, Canada and New Zealand, the Home Office has added the likes of China, Bahrain and Serbia as countries from where students would face reduced checks on educational, financial and English language skill requirements to study at British universities.
However, India has been left out of this new expanded list, which means Indian students applying for similar courses will continue to face rigorous checks and documentary requirements.
Lord Karan Bilimoria, Indian-origin entrepreneur and President of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), described the move as an "insult" to India and another example of Britain's "economically illiterate and hostile attitude to immigration".
"I consider this another kick in the teeth for India... This sends entirely the wrong message to India, to exclude it from these Tier 4 measures. The government has simply got it wrong," said Bilimoria, while welcoming the overall visa relaxation measures introduced by UK home secretary Sajid Javid.
"India has always been one of Britain's closest allies and an emerging global economic superpower. Excluding India from this list is myopically short-sighted and is damaging what has always been a special relationship between our countries," he said.
According to latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) data, India is among the top three countries from where overseas students come in to study at UK universities, followed by China and the US. While Indian students registered a hike of 30 per cent to hit 15,171 Tier 4 visas last year, the numbers remain a far cry from around 30,000 six years ago.
The latest development will add to growing concern within Indian government circles, given that ministers and diplomats have repeatedly highlighted the need for a more welcoming immigration regime for Indian students.
Last week, Indian High Commissioner to the UK, YK Sinha, held a meeting with the UK's minister for universities, Sam Gyimah, during which he once again raised the issue of "smoother and greater student and faculty mobility between the two countries".
"Students from an additional 11 countries, including China, will be able to provide a reduced level of documentation when applying for their Tier 4 visa," the Home Office statement notes.
On being asked why India had been omitted from this expanded list, a spokesperson said, "We welcome Indian students who want to come to the UK to study at our world-leading educational institutions. We issue more visas to students from India than any other country except China and the USA."
It added, "In addition, the proportion of Indian students coming to study in the UK at a university has increased from around 50 per cent in 2010 to around 90 per cent in 2016. Indian student visa applications are up 30 per cent on last year. We continue to have regular discussions with the Indian government on a range of issues including on visas and UK immigration policy," it said.
Indian techies, engineers and teachers are among foreign professionals who stand to gain from changes announced by the UK home office.
The changes in the tier-2 visa category could open up thousands of slots for other professionals now that doctors and nurses have been exempted from the controversial annual cap of 20,700 visas. This would also mean that an unrestricted number of non-EU doctors and nurses can enter the UK to plug the acute shortage of skilled professionals plaguing the country's National Health Service (NHS), which accounts for around 40 per cent of all tier-2 slots.