Thursday, June 18, 2020

The curious case of Indian students who planned to study abroad

The year 2020 has been a year of uncertainties. While the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has hit economies and institutions everywhere around the world, the plans of Indian students looking to study abroad this academic year have also been thrown out of gear.

Indians are the second-largest nationality on university campuses globally, with over 750,000 of them studying in colleges across continents. If not for Covid-19, thousands would have gone abroad for admission this year, too. According to the recent Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) report, Indian Students Mobility Report 2020, the pandemic has affected the decisions of 48.46 per cent of Indian students aspiring to study abroad in 2020.

Even as the new academic year, to begin in September, is fast-approaching, the students have been left in the lurch. Their concerns are wide-ranging — from high fees without a rounded campus experience, to a decline in or loss of income for parents who would funded their education, health and well-being, and a growing protectionism in the US and other countries jeopardising post-education employment prospects.

For their part, universities are also deciding while keeping in mind the immediate ambiguities around international travel, status of student visas, lockdowns in different cities, and education delivery models. But, as with most sectors right now, there seems to be no clear path ahead.

Universities formulating policies autonomously

As regards the academic year ahead, every university has a different response to the pandemic. In the UK, University of Cambridge has decided to deliver all classes exclusively online until the summer of 2021. In Canada, University of British Columbia and McGill University have decided to keep classes online when the new academic year begins.

In the US, Harvard University has offered students the option to defer their admissions. Those like University of Virginia's Darden School of Business are planning to begin the academic year in August but allow international students to enrol until January, to accommodate visa applications. Some others are still in the process of understanding and devising ways to have students on campus and offer “blended classes” — both live and online sessions.

In an emailed response to queries from Business Standard, the United States-India Educational Foundation (USEIF) says there are more than 4,700 accredited universities and colleges for higher education in the US. Each of these formulates its policies autonomously, keeping in mind the welfare, health and safety of students and the academic community. "Universities are exploring a range of possibilities and instructional paradigms to assist students at this time.”

Janaka Pushpanathan, British Council’s director for South India, explains that universities in the UK are doing scenario planning and looking to use high-quality platforms while maintaining the quality of teaching, engagement and interaction. “The whole idea of face-to-face teaching is interactivity. Now, thanks to technology, there is a huge scope to create and simulate similar environments online, and then resume face-to-face teaching sometime later,” she says.

However, not all students are convinced. A media professional accepted into a postgraduate journalism programme in the UK is unsure about deferred admissions as the way forward. Concerned about healthcare aspects and a rounded campus experience, she emphasises that the experience of studying abroad is not about online lectures. “This is not the best time to go abroad in any situation. Taking a break from work and studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me and I don’t want to dilute it. I may re-apply in two or three years, when things start getting back to normal,” she says.

Academic choices mostly based on employment prospects

There are several reasons why Indian students choose universities abroad, but the primary incentives are the advantage that one gets in post-study work visas and employment opportunities.

According to Unesco, in 2017 there were 5.3 million internationally mobile students. China and India were the top two countries of their origin, and the US, Australia, and the UK the top destinations. In 2019, the number of Indians studying in the US crossed 202,014, or 18 per cent of all international students there. In Australia, 15 per cent of all international students were Indians. They were outnumbered only by the Chinese. In the UK (in 2018) Indians, at 19,750, were again the second-largest nationality among international students. In Canada, the largest number of international students on campuses was that of Indians, who accounted for 34 per cent of the total 642,000.

A survey by QS reveals that a majority of Indians prefer to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects abroad, with 41 per cent of them choosing business & management, and 33 per cent engineering and technology. This choice is directly linked to employability abroad. It is easier to get jobs and work permits through these disciplines than with non-STEM subjects. In the US alone, 90 per cent of H-1B visa requests in 2011 were for jobs that required high-level STEM knowledge.

The Indian Students Mobility Report 2020 by QS also highlights the fact that 47.38 per cent of students in STEM fields have changed their plans to study abroad because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Among non-STEM students, this figure stands at 51.59 per cent.

Undergraduate concerns: Wasted year, no fallback

High cut-offs, competitive exams, and lack of specialised academic streams in India push many high-school students to apply to universities abroad for their undergraduate studies. For them, the present uncertainty does not match up to the fear of wasting an academic year, or not having something concrete to fall back on.

“My friends and I have got into colleges we really wanted to join, and we are willing to take any risk,” says a student whose father works in a multinational corporation and has decided to take a transfer to the US while she applied early to University of Texas, Austin, to study biochemistry. Once accepted, she did not apply elsewhere.

Earlier, her parents, who are funding her education, had different cost calculations. But Covid-19 has impacted their transfer to the US, and the tuition fee, converted into rupees, has strained their finances. Despite this, she says: "Neither my parents nor I want a wasted year at home, so we will manage.” The university has assured her that classes will commence, with blended teaching. She has decided to enrol, and is hopeful that things will return to normal in the future.

With concerns about health and safety, other students Business Standard spoke to are looking to Indian private universities as a fallback, should they not be able to go abroad this year. According to Ali Imran, vice-president, external engagement, Ashoka University, in the recently completed application round, the university has received the highest number of applications since 2014. “While this could be because of increased awareness about Ashoka University, there is a fair chance that students who would have otherwise gone abroad are also applying,” he says.

Many private universities, including Ashoka, accept Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and American College Testing (ACT) results, necessary for undergraduate admission in the US. They also have an internal aptitude test, so students do not have to wait for their board exam results to be considered. “Because of the pandemic, there is more interest in staying back, as parents and students are not sure of the value in going abroad right now,” Imran adds.

The US and work visa: OPT and H-1B

The US is the first choice for Indians planning to study abroad. When it comes to employment and work visa in the US, the two programmes that impact Indian students are the Optional Practical Training programme (OPT) and the H-1B Visa. The OPT programme is considered a direct path for international students to gain work experience, as it allows them to work for a year in the US after graduation (or three for STEM disciplines).

According to a PEW research finding, Indians were the largest group of foreign students who studied and utilised the OPT programme between 2004 and 2016, accounting for 30 per cent (441,400) of total. The OPT programme also allows employers to gauge a foreign student before they sponsor an expensive H-1B temporary skilled worker visa.

In 2019, according to the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), 132,967 H-1B Petitions for Initial (New) Employment H-1B visas were approved, and 256,356 H-1B Petitions for Continuing Employment were approved. External Affairs Minister S Jaishakar had informed Parliament in 2019 that Indian nationals had received between 67 per cent to 72 per cent of all H-1B visas issued by the US in the five previous financial years.

However, the overall number of denials of H-1B visas has increased under the Donald Trump administration. According to an analysis of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data by NFAP, the denial rates for H-1B for initial employment in the US rose from 6 per cent in 2015, to 21 per cent in 2019. The denial rate for continuing employment rose from 3 per cent in 2015 to 12 per cent in 2018 and 2019.

The analysis highlights that new H-1B petitions (initial employment) for top-7 Indian-based companies declined by 64 per cent between 2015 and 2019. The companies (TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL America, Larsen & Toubro, Tech Mahindra and Mindtree) had only 5,428 H-1B petitions for initial employment approved in FY19, which was 6 per cent of the 85,000 petitions. The decline is not just because of H-1B denials, but also due to the choice by companies to build up their domestic workforce in the US, and rely less on visas.

The future may be getting more uncertain because of the pandemic. On April 22, 2020, US President Donald Trump signed a proclamation suspending the entry of certain migrants who present a risk to the US labour market during the economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. This order triggered a review of the non-immigrant visa programmes, including the OPT and H-1B visas. Last month, Republican senators wrote to the President, urging him to suspend the issuance of new guest worker visas, which include H-1B visas and the OPT programme, until unemployment figures in the US returned to normal levels.

The changed situation in the UK since last year

The situation in the UK with respect to students has changed since last year. Over 57,000 Indians were granted Tier-II skilled work visas in 2019, which accounts for over 50 per cent of the total skilled work visa granted globally. According to UK Home Office statistics, there had been a 136 per cent jump in the number of student visas issued to Indians in the year ended March 2020, compared with that a year earlier.

British Council’s Pushpanathan says: "The United Kingdom had previously seen a drop in international enrolment because of restrictions imposed on the post-study work visa. But this year, the universities were expecting sharper growth in enrolments, with the introduction of the Graduate immigration route, which offers students the option of up to two years of post-study work in the UK, and which holds for 2021."

She points to a recent survey of international students conducted by the British Council in April which revealed that there was still interest among students to go to the UK — with 22 per cent of the respondents planning to apply for this academic year. The survey further revealed that while 29 per cent who applied were likely to cancel their plans because of Covid-19, 43 percent were not.

However, the survey also highlighted that the main concerns among Indian students were health and safety. While 67 per cent respondents said health & well-being was their main worry, 63 per cent chose personal safety, and 57 per cent cited financial constraints.

To go or not to go — funds will be a decider

A volatility in the job market and uncertainty with work visas has exacerbated the worries of Indian students who accepted for admission to universities abroad. Many are recalibrating their thoughts on whether it makes sense to take heavy student loans or to dip into personal savings.

What should students do in this situation? Vibha Kagzi, founder and chief executive of, a study-abroad counselling company, says students should enrol. “Given that global economies have slowed down and unemployment is rampant, there will be minimal job creation and no pay hikes or promotions this year. Therefore, it is an ideal time to go back to school and earn a degree. By the time a student graduates, the job market will resume normalcy and take in fresh candidates.”

However, Sahil Anand (name changed), who was accepted into a top management school in the US for an MBA, has decided to defer. “We don’t know what will happen next. When will international travel open up? What happens to summer internship placements, and post-study work visa, which was a big incentive for studying management abroad?” He had planned on taking a student loan in the hope of landing a high-paying post-study job. The insecurity over post-study visa changes, and employment opportunities have made him reconsider.

Under the Reserve Bank of India’s Liberalised Remittance Scheme (LRS) education remittances (money going abroad for tuition fees only) were increasing in the past. In 2018-2019, education remittances were 25.9 per cent of the all outward remittances, (worth $13.8 billion). This increased to 26.9 per cent of the total (worth $17.4 billion) from April 2019 to February 2020.

However, the past three months, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a sharp drop in remittances for studying abroad. These fell from $510 million in January 2020 to $497 million in February, $312.68 million in March, and $78.76 million in April 2020. The remittances for April last year had been $252.84 million, and for April 2018 $115.68 million.

While there are multiple reasons explaining the decline, given the situation across the world in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the double-digit figure for April 2020 reveals that money going out of India towards higher education might not be the same this year. Nor would the number of students on international campuses. Nobody knows what the future holds, and each student accepted into universities abroad will have to make their choices while keeping global realities and long-term future implications in mind.

This article written by Sarah Farooqui.

Source: Business Standard, June 18, 2020

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