Students are a big link in India-UK relations: British High Commissioner

In an exclusive interview to The Tribune, Alex Ellis pours details about the emerging tie-ups between India and the UK

Tribune News Service

Sanjeev Singh Bariana and Hamir Singh 

Chandigarh, May 27   

The number of Indian students in the UK has tripled during the last three years. At least one lakh student visas were issued to Indian students this year and a sizable number of them are Punjabis. India has almost overtaken China in terms of number of students studying in the UK.   

In an exclusive interview to The Tribune and Punjabi Tribune, the British High Commissioner Alex Ellis said, “Students are the biggest link to our core area of knowledge. Sharing knowledge will lead to collaboration in research, investments, tourism and other fields. We want to encourage our relationship in education as much as we can. This is very vital for a sustainability of healthy relations.”  

He gave a detailed roadmap on programmes of potential collaboration between the two countries in agriculture, information technology (IT), food processing, higher education, sports, public transport (electric buses) and the biomass sectors.  

He said, “The UK and Punjab have a very old relationship. In the overall perspective, there are approximately six lakh people of Punjabi origin in the UK. Just by the way of an example, both the grandfathers of our Finance Minister (Rishi Sunak) are from Punjab. We need to be looking ahead."

Certain students will like to settle abroad or make their career in the UK after completing their education. What can the students think about their future in the UK?   

One of the reasons why the student numbers, particularly Indians, have gone up sizably was because we have reopened the work norms that allow them to work for two years after completion of their study course. This is to facilitate their efforts in repaying their education loans. But it shouldn’t just be about settling there. It should be about greater mobility of people between the two countries.

A lot of investors from India who had studied in the UK are going back there for investments.

One of the important things that I discussed with Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann on Thursday was how to track people back to Punjab. And that is what would connect education to our trade investment story. We are underperforming on investment between the UK and Punjab at the moment. With a better student connection, I think we should be thinking more about investments between Punjab and the UK.   

Can we talk about sectors where we could collaborate?   

Considering the human connection between Punjab and the UK, we should be doing better in our tie-ups. We are deliberating on providing new innovations in technology in the field of agriculture, especially, technology for sustainable agriculture. Our technology on waste energy was best-suited to the requirements of Punjab.

One example of mutual benefits in working together is the Covishield vaccine. It had a huge impact in India and the world. It has been developed by a UK company AstraZeneca and manufactured by the Serum Institute in India. That is a model we would like to replicate in Punjab, especially in the field of sustainable agriculture.   

Can we look forward to some more areas in industry where the countries could have tie-ups?    

We would like to attract more British companies to come here. We have some significant British investments in electric vehicles in India, including buses (Electric Green buses). India is going to make its bus fleet more sustainable and we have a manufacturing potential for a sustainable outcome.

Punjab stands to gain big in its public transport with our electric buses. Our technology could supplement the hard-working and resilient Punjabis for exploiting the potential of different sectors. The state with booming agriculture has a scope for improvement in tying-up our advanced technology, especially our state-of-the-art food processing technology.    

What was the central idea to your meeting with Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann?

First, on the trade investment side, we would like to bring an agri-technology mission here to look at the possibilities for great agricultural companies.

Second, we have a group of the biggest British universities which would be coming to India in two weeks’ time. We would see if we could link them with some good universities in Punjab. We are looking for an international expansion in education now and India is a very obvious country to do that, especially Punjab.

I would like to explore possibilities of close tie-ups in the field of sports. Punjab has a strong sporting tradition. We have Commonwealth games in Birmingham in the end of July and early August, this year. I talked to the Chief Minister about getting Punjabis there as well. I can say there is quite a lot we can do. It is too good an opportunity to miss. 

Are there any differences that need to be ironed out for a smooth talk with Punjab for a future tie-up between the two?   

My job is to try and accentuate the positive and support the prime ministers of the two countries who have given us a clear vision about what they want to achieve from this relationship. With the enormous flow of people, we would like to see if we could get direct flight between Punjab and the UK for easy of flow of people.

With the good comes the bad. There are people who come to the UK or some British citizens here who commit some bad things. We need to ensure that we have good law enforcement cooperation to stop abuse of the migration rules. That is partly done but needs to be done through the state as well.

The UK issues almost one lakh student visas to the Indian nationals and 40 per cent of our skilled work visas go to the Indian nationals. We need to make sure that there is no abuse of visas, otherwise, we have to close down these routes.  

Is illegal migration an area of big concern? 

It is. We are working with the Indian authorities on the issue. It is mostly the people who are overstaying their visas. Sometimes, it could be people trying to come to the UK as students but unlikely to study. We have good systems in place to deal with that. We have an enormous demand for the UK visas at the moment so we have to be careful. We have to get the balance correct because you want to help all the good things that come with an increased migration.  

Ukraine-Russia conflict is reflective of a changed world order. What are your views?   

I totally agree with you that the global scene is changing. The world is changing. When I joined the diplomatic services in 1990s, the Soviet Union was collapsing, the Berlin wall had gone down. It was a time of great optimism. The era is now dead. We are in a tougher world.

I am an optimistic man but there is no doubt about the fact that there is more competition. India and the UK, both, seek more national resilience. There is also an increased resilience between two countries. That is why India and UK are coming close together while looking ahead at the 21st century.

I mentioned tie-up for the Covishield vaccine. There are other areas as well where we are collaborating.

Things will further brighten up between the two countries by Diwali this year, with the expected signing of the Free Trade Agreement.

Our Defence Cooperation Agreement will reduce procedural wrangling and ensure early delivery time. The Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement has clearly spelt out how both countries would benefit from enhanced arrangements on the migration issues.  

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