Immigration curbs deter students
Immigration curbs have "played disappointingly badly" in India despite prime ministerial charm offensives to show Britain welcomes students, the science minister has admitted.
Ministers have been working "flat out" to attract international candidates but Indian press coverage about reforms to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands by 2015 has been " surprisingly negative", David Willetts said.
The Conservative appeared to suggest that while numbers from India were falling - a 38% drop between 2011 and 2012 - there continued to be a surge in applicants from China because of the way the immigration crackdown was covered by its more tightly-controlled media.
The contrast shows "it's not a matter of British policy" but the different way it was "perceived and reported", he added.
In an interview with Total Politics magazine, he said: "It has played disappointingly badly on the Indian sub-continent. I've been with the Prime Minister to India on several occasions, and we both make the point that legitimate students can apply, with no number controls.
"But it's a striking contrast: in China, that is completely understood. The number of Chinese students coming to Britain continues to surge, which shows it's not a matter of British policy. It's about the different ways it's perceived and reported in India."
Asked why there was a difference, he replied: " I don't know... you might speculate.... This is something I do look into. The structure is rather different there than in China, and that might, in turn, have fed a different type of reporting. There tend to be more small-scale agents in India... but for whatever reason, India has a very lively press. Its press coverage has been surprisingly negative. We're working flat out to try to communicate the basic message."
David Cameron has insisted there are no limits on the number of "legitimate" international students that can be admitted to the UK and called for ''calm language'' on immigration during a visit to India in November.
The Prime Minister acknowledged during the tour that a - now-abandoned - proposal to impose a £3,000 visa bond to encourage people not to overstay had caused ''lots of concern''.
Mr Willetts backed suggestions that Chancellor George Osborne should visit India to explain the Government's position.
"Yes, I think that's a good idea," he said. "I went on George's trip to China and the PM's a month later. You can always do more. This government, we do look outwards, and especially towards these emerging powers, India, China, Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia... It's very important that we build up good relations with them, and they look to collaborate with us on science and research."