Duped, shamed and scared, they live on the edge
For students who find their dream foreign education experience souring into a nightmare at dubious varsities, the way out is hard and full of self-doubts. Charu Sudan Kasturi reports. Stakeholder effectdelhi Updated: Oct 17, 2012 01:50 IST
Two years later, the 24-year-old is leading parallel lives. His parents, from Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh, think he’s a pilot honing his skills in Australia. In reality, he’s an automobile mechanic’s aide in Ashfield, a Sydney suburb.
"I can’t tell my parents the truth," Krishna said, his voice cracking over a weak Skype connection. "It would break their hearts, and shame them in front of their local community. I’m only agreeing to talk to you because it could help others escape what I’m going through."
Thousands of Indian students each year find themselves trapped at foreign universities or training schools that promised relatively cheap, international education, but turn out to be little more than degree mills, according to estimates of the human resource development ministry and independent experts. Education agents play a key rolein this complex chain that connects often unsuspecting students to varsities across the US, UK, Canada and Australia increasingly depending on foreign students financially.
But their troubled don’t end with realizing their mistake once they reach the varsity. Family expectations, heavy loans and dodgy documentation can make the journey long and painful, often including living a life on the edge of the law.
“It’s a horrible, traumatic experience to have to go through,” said a senior official at India’s New York mission, who was involved with helping students at California-based Tri Valley University (TVU), which was shut down in January 2011, after its CEO was arrested for visa fraud.
Raghav Rao was one among about 1200 Indian students at TVU, when US immigration officials swooped down upon the school that ran from a single floor of a building it shared with another unaccredited university, and had just a dozen laptops and five desktops as its infrastructure to teach 1500 engineering students. Rao, like many other TVU students, was radio-tagged, his every move tracked, because the visa fraud the university committed – using forged recommendations from accredited schools to get a permit to admit international students – effectively made his visa fake as well. He is now back home in Hyderabad, but is torn between a sense of shame and anger.
“I was made to feel like a criminal,” Rao said. “But my only mistake was going to Tri Valley.”
Rao’s troubles started within a month of joining TVU in 2010, for a two-year graduate engineering programme. He wanted to transfer to another university, an accredited one, as soon as he realized that TVU was a sham. But every university he communicated with refused to take TVU students. Around him, other classmates had similar experiences.
But at the same time, he found some Indian students from other universities transferring to his varsity, because it allowed students to break visa rules and work when they were required to study. US visa rules allow students to work only within their university campus, for up to 20 hours a week, for the first year of their academic programme. But a majority of TVU students were working – as shop floor managers and low end IT services personnel across California and even in neighboring states.
Burdened with a USD 15,000 loan he had taken for his education, Rao also started working on the outskirts of nearby Silicon Valley at a wage – USD 6 an hour, below the California minimum wages of USD 8 per hour – he could not challenge. He stopped only when TVU officials wrote to all students alerting them that immigration officials were likely to visit the varsity. Rao rushed back to TVU, and decided that the risk of violating the law was too high to continue working illegally.
“But if I hadn’t been forced to leave the US after the school was closed down, I would have somehow tried to stay there to at least get back my loan,” Rao said. “I couldn’t have come back with that loan and without any degree that will get me a job.”
About 18 months later, about 750 Indian students at London Metropolitan University are suffering the trauma that Rao and his TVU classmates had to undergo. The UK Border Agency has accused LMU of effectively allowing international students to work when they are required to be studying, violating visa laws.
But another fear – beyond their loans, family expectations and legal challenges – also unites most students who have suffered after joining dubious universities, and helps these institutions flourish.
Harish Kumar (name changed), an MBA graduate of Vancouver-based University Canada West (UCW) who now mans a pizzeria counter, chose against going public against his varsity till now. Rao also chose to silently try and navigate his challenges at TVU.
“I used to wonder, while working with some of the genuine students at TVU, why they never complained to us earlier,” the Indian official at the New York mission said. “Why did they wait for UWS officials to come and crash TVU’s party?”
Kumar calls it the “stakeholder effect.”
Yes, he had been duped, he said. “But once I was there, I couldn’t afford to go public against my university. Any negative news about the university would only hurt my career further,” Kumar said. “But I can’t take it any more.”