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India and London Met lose that loving feeling

Joanna Sugden reports from India on falling student applications and pre-emptive cutbacks

Months before London Metropolitan University learned that its right to admit students from outside Europe had been revoked, its staff in India were given notice that they would be out of a job by the end of July.

The university decided in February to close its two liaison offices in Delhi and Chennai because of falling numbers of applicants, after changes to the UK government’s Tier 4 visa regulations, including the closure of the post-study work route. Only now that the UK Border Agency has removed London Met’s highly trusted sponsor status does the closure of its Indian outposts seem prescient.

But the university did not intend to leave India altogether, only to alter its recruitment strategy.

The number of Indian nationals studying at London Met dropped by more than half between the academic years 2010-11 and 2011-12, from 700 to 300.

To reduce costs, the university was planning to work with a “network of trusted consultants” who would do the recruiting for them, instead of paying for permanent bases and employees in the country. The decision reflected a wider reduction in interest in the UK among Indian students.

Year-on-year growth in the number of students from the country studying in the UK, which had been at 35 per cent between 2007-08 and 2008-09, fell to 1.5 per cent in 2010-11, the latest year for which figures are available from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, while numbers actually dropped 1 per cent for English universities the same year.

This compares with numbers coming from China, where year-on-year growth remained strong in 2010-11 at 18 per cent.

Whether London Met will be able to implement its new plans in India will depend on the outcome of its legal challenge to the UKBA.

But damage to the university and the UK’s reputation may already have been done, according to Indian students affected by the decision.

Christo Joseph, 21, from Bangalore, is meant to be starting his third year in events management at London Met this autumn. In June, he gave a talk promoting the university to sixth-formers in Bangalore and said he had been on the verge of signing a contract to become an agent for the university when news broke about the visa licence.

“This will be a black mark on the UK with students who want to come and study there,” Mr Joseph said.

He has now returned early to the UK to attend interviews at other universities.

Dwayne Gallagher, director of Study International UK, which helps Indian students apply to British universities, said there was concern that what has happened to London Met might happen to other institutions.

“[But] I don’t think it will be that huge an effect, because the market itself already made a huge adjustment in the last 18 months, when the UKBA got rid of the post-study work visa,” Mr Gallagher told Times Higher Education.

He estimated there had been a 50 per cent drop in interest in the UK from Indian students, so any further downturn would be unlikely.

Ruchika Castelino, director of Indian operations for Study Overseas Global, said the UK remained popular, but newer universities might see a “dip in terms of overall numbers”.

“Older universities have said that their student numbers from India remain robust and some have even increased,” Ms Castelino said.

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