There have been some significant changes to the arrangements for issuing visas for those wishing to visit Britain. These will involve a new system for assessing applications to work in Britain and includes the launch of a new Business Visit Visa, and a requirement that those wanting a visa based on marriage must both be at least 21 years old (designed to reduce the risk of forced marriages).
These are part of a package of wider changes to the way the British visa system works. We want the system to be transparent, efficient and fair and to reflect the realities of modern Britain. Britain is densely populated and we, like many other countries, want to manage migration quite carefully.
The economic downturn is reducing opportunities for work and, as unemployment in Britain increases, this will become more apparent. We want sponsors to play a much greater role in the process. The British government is much better placed to judge the bona fides of British institutions and companies than of individual Indian visa applicants. It helps nobody if we give visas to those who wish to work when there are no suitable jobs available.
Living on quite a small island, with stretched infrastructure, people in Britain are reluctant to see greater pressure on public services as a result of large-scale inward migration. Similarly, our economy has moved to a position in which we have qualified people with no jobs. So we are being more selective in whom we encourage to come to Britain. We are also looking at where there are specific skills shortages.
This does not reflect any change in our view that our society has been enriched and our economy strengthened by migration over the last 30-40 years. The Indian community in Britain is a classic example. Judged by almost every indicator, they are more successful at school and at work than the indigenous population. They are contributing disproportionately to our economy. They are injecting some of the energy and dynamism into Britain that have generated so much growth in India over the last few years. I am sure that this will continue.
It does reflect a determination that migration should benefit Britain in the future as it has in the past. Nobody has a right to come to live and work in Britain — any more than British people have a right to come to live in India. However, we continue to issue very large numbers of visas in India (more than anywhere else in the world). We are on track to issue 25 per cent more student visas in 2008 than we did in 2007. We will issue more visas under the first year of our new programme for highly skilled workers (launched in April) than we did in the final year of the previous scheme.
The biggest changes to the way we issue visas for work or study are moving the focus to the sponsor, and using objective metrics to assess applications. The former will make it easier for all those wanting to go to properly established companies or universities: they will take on the responsibility for vouching for applicants. If a company or university is not on our list of accredited sponsors, it should raise a question for the applicant about the institution. Basing decisions on objective criteria (the ‘Points Based System’) will remove some of the subjectivity in our traditional system and will allow applicants to assess their chances of getting a visa before handing over any money. The result will be a simpler and more transparent approach (reducing the number of categories for those wanting to work in Britain from almost 80 to five) — easier for all to understand.
Looking ahead, it’s difficult to predict how our visa operation will evolve. My own guess is that we will see a gradual reduction in numbers wanting to work or study in Britain. Why? Because people wanting to work for British businesses will increasingly be able to do so sitting in Bangalore or Chandigarh as distance no longer matters. That will bring wealth into India, contribute to a vibrant society here and increase Indian tax revenues.
For students, the Indian government is already committed to a massive expansion of higher education. And I am sure that India will find a way to allow high quality foreign education institutions to set up here (on their own or in partnership). What is the logic of saying that an Indian student can go to Oxford University for three years, but that Oxford cannot open a campus in India to offer exactly the same degree at less than half the price?
Richard Stagg is the British High Commissioner to India.