As I turned on the TV one evening I was shocked to see a story about Britain with the headline “Indian Student’s at Britain’s mercy.”
The UK Government had just revoked London Metropolitan University’s (LMU) licence to accept foreign students and around 360 Indian students currently studying at LMU had to find new places to study or face deportation. As you might imagine, this didn’t go down well with students or commenters in India!
Media reaction in India, and even in China where a translation error brought City University in London into doubt worrying Chinese students too, seemed to be far from the minds of the story’s originators in the UK. Back in Britain the stance was received well by a largely supportive public, bar some protests, so all would have looked fine on the face of it as the government showed that it was tough on immigration loop holes. But should British politicians have cared more about the resulting coverage abroad?
Regardless of what you think of the decision to revoke LMU’s licence, what is clear from the media reaction in India is that ‘Brand Britain’ took an unfortunate hit. Decision makers in Britain should arguably care about the handling of the story abroad when thousands of Indians and other nationalities study in the UK. Higher Education is a major export that subsidises UK educations. It also serves as a source of soft power for the UK. The Prime Minister of India for example went to Oxford and Cambridge and on my visits to the British Council in India the library is packed with students struggling to find floor space to study.
But isn’t this exaggerating a story linked to one former polytechnic? The decision at LMU shouldn’t impact on other institutions surely? Well in the eyes of a Brit, or ‘Britisher’ as the epithet goes out here, maybe but when looking at the potential impact it is important to understand how those in foreign markets consider the issue. Indian students don’t necessarily make the same distinctions that British students would make about UK higher education institutions. A UK education, no matter the institution, still carries a lot of kudos in India. For example, despite being far from the issue, and a very different institution, the University of Cambridge is quoted here as journalists in India contact universities they know about to gain sector views for their stories. Decisions like this, despite the recent reprieve, sow doubt in the minds of a large number of prospective Indian students who, with signals such as these, are more and more likely to see the U.S. as a destination of choice for Higher Education. LMU itself also continues to be linked to unrelated controversies about fraudulent universities owing to the profile built by this story.
A number of things could have helped mitigate the impact of the decision such as greater planning, information for students and foreign media, and engagement but more than all of this, the key communication learning is to recognise that someone might think differently to you.
Peter Bellini is a Fellow for Edelman in New Delhi, from London, and you may follow him on Twitter @PeterBellini