The Great Brexit Bake Off: Does Theresa May’s immigration policy mean no more Rahuls?

Eight years of hostile visa changes plus an uncertain future are fracturing India’s migration relationship with the UK.

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Rahul Mandal, a painfully modest and waspishly morose 30-year-old from Rotherham, won the Great British Bake Off last night – having only started baking two years ago.

As has become traditional for the thoroughly British show, he warmed the nation’s hearts with his underdog tale of perseverance, and reminded an ever-divided UK of the multiculturalism we once embraced.

But Bake Off may stop having contestants like Rahul in future. Eight years of Conservative immigration policy has fundamentally changed the UK’s migration relationship with India, where Rahul was born.

Rahul moved from Kolkata to Loughborough University eight years ago on a scholarship to do a PhD in optical metrology. He now lives in Rotherham in Yorkshire with an English couple, Liz and David, and works as a research scientist in Sheffield University’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. This was where he began baking for his colleagues, who urged him to apply for the show – which he hadn’t even heard of five years ago.

His family live in Kolkata – where his mother prayed daily for his Bake Off victory – and came over to watch the final with him when it was eventually aired. (It was recorded in the summer, and the results kept secret.)

Yet contestants like Rahul are in ever shorter supply. The number of Indian students in the UK has more than halved since 2010.

In 2012, the UK removed the right of international students to work after graduation, imposing strict time limits for moving into work, earning thresholds and sponsorship requirements from employers. It also cracked down on so-called “bogus” colleges that enrolled international students.

Both changes – made by the Tory-led coalition, in which Theresa May was home secretary – signified a new, hostile attitude towards foreign students, and significantly contributed to the drop in Indian people coming to the UK to study.

This year, India was excluded from a list the UK government revised of countries eligible for a fast-track student visa process, making it even harder for Indian students to come here to study or stay.

In 2012, the government also introduced a minimum income requirement for people to bring over their partner or children from outside the EU to join them: £18,600 a year. About 41 per cent of British nationals earn less than this.

A person like Rahul could be “symbolic of a changing scenario in the UK” regarding Indian migrants, says Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

“Certainly, people like Rahul are less likely to be able to remain in the UK now, in the long-term, in future after they’ve finished their studies than they were in the past,” he says. “And certainly they’re less likely to bring over family members.”

In 2011, the Indian-born population was the largest migrant population in the UK. This changed only a couple of years ago, when people born in Poland made up a higher proportion, for the first time, according to McNeil. Indian people also used to make up the highest proportion of non-EU foreign students in the UK, up until 2010 when Chinese students overtook them.

When the coalition was elected in 2010, this was “the end of that era” when Indian immigration into the UK was booming, according to McNeil.

“When Rahul came to study in the UK, that was really a peak of students from India coming to study in the UK,” says crossbench peer Karan Bilimoria, president of the UK Council for International Student Affairs and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students, who came to the UK from India as an international student himself before founding Cobra Beer.

“The number of Indian students since the time Rahul came over has halved,” he adds, blaming the government’s decision in 2012 to disallow post-degree work visas, which Britain’s competitors still offer. “They now have over 100,000 Indian students in Canada.”

Other countries also have targets for increasing their number of international students. The UK under May continues to count them in the overall immigration figures – which the government still has a target to cut to the “tens of thousands”.

This controversial aim will become even more fraught after Brexit.

“A lot of Brexiteers at the time of the referendum openly misled a lot of the Asian community, saying we'll be able to let in more people from south Asia,” says Bilimoria. “Of course, that was so misleading because the government still has this net migration target of getting to under 100,000.”

Although they bring in £26bn to the economy, international students – like Rahul was when he came to Britain – also nourish the country culturally, as shown year after year on Bake Off.

“They enrich our communities, and here is an example of Rahul, somebody who is a scientist who has a passion for baking and wins this great national prize. And I think that’s just wonderful and shows Britain at its best,” Bilimoria says.

Their treatment through years of hostile immigration policy, and the aim of bringing immigration down post-Brexit, gives international students the perception that they’re not welcome.

 “We’re losing out as a country,” says Bilimoria. “We’re losing out on the Rahuls of tomorrow.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.