Three years ago, Harish Kumar left his home near Jalandhar for Canada, with dreams of a foreign MBA. Two years after graduating from University Canada West (UCW), with an MBA in hand and 20,000 Canadian dollars in debt, he stands behind a Vancouver pizzeria counter seven days a week, taking orders from customers.
“My degree was useless,” Kumar said. “I feel cheated.”
He isn’t alone. Located on one floor of a commercial building, with just eight classrooms in downtown Vancouver, UCW is a part of the Eminata for-profit group of educational institutions. Eminata is chaired by Peter Chung, a man convicted in 1993 in California for defrauding students at a computer school he ran.
And though UCW is recognized by the government of British Columbia, over 30 students, graduates, faculty and former teachers and employees interviewed by HT have alleged that it is a university only in name, and that many of them were duped – charges the varsity has denied vehemently.
Many of these graduates are working as manual laborers, in gas stations or like Kumar in restaurants and bars in Canada – a far cry from the professions they had in mind after an MBA.
Now, the human resource development (HRD) ministry and the ministry of external affairs (MEA) are probing these allegations. MEA sources have confirmed that Indian High Commission officials have even visited UCW to talk to students about their concerns.
But UCW may just be the latest symptom of a widespread disease.
Though there are no official numbers, government experts and respected education advisers estimate that thousands of Indian students are each year getting trapped in foreign educational institutions that sold them dreams that sour into nightmares.
From Canada to the US, and Australia to the UK, these institutions mix in among several reputed universities in countries that have traditionally attracted most Indian students.
In some cases like California-based Tri Valley University (2010) and Herguan University (2012) that dupe immigration authorities, Indian students face the prospect of criminal cases themselves. Like UCW, both these universities were running from a part of a single building, with no campus.
In other cases, like London Metropolitan University (2012), students are staring at the prospect of deportation. And some institutions in Australia where Indians are studying operate out of garages, external affairs minister SM Krishna found while visiting that country.
But in all these cases, it is a complex web -- of dubious education agents, of no monitoring of such agents in India and often of weak regulations in their home countries – that allows these institutions to trap Indian students desperate for a foreign degree.
The first trait most of these varsities share is a disproportionately high number of Indian students.
At top universities in the US, UK, Canada or Australia, Indians typically constitute a maximum of 10-15% of the student body even in professional courses like engineering and management that are popular among them.
But at Tri Valley University – shut down in 2010 after US immigration officials found it had forged documents to admit foreign students -- 90% of total students were Indian.
At Herguan University, also accused of defrauding American immigration authorities to enable its foreign students to get visas, 94% of students were Indian.
At LMU too, before the change in visa rules that deterred Indian students from applying to the UK, at least 40 % of total students were from India.
And among students who physically attend classes at UCW – which also offers online programmes – at least 90 % are Indians, according to faculty members and students.
“You would think that if so many Indians are studying at a university, it must be good for us,” said Sandeep Sharma, a student who opted out of UCW after he gained admission because he spoke to several students at the varsity who warned him against joining it.
“But it appears that too many Indians at a university actually represent a warning sign.”
Tie ups with reputed Indian institutions also helps these universities build credibility with Indian students. But it doesn’t help the Indian institutions.
In 2010, UCW persuaded Jawaharlal Nehru Technical University Kakinada (JNTUK), a public university rated among India’s best engineering schools, to sign an MoU with it.
Under the MoU, JNTUK and UCW were to jointly run an MBA exchange programme that would allow students to spend a year at the Kakinada school and the second year at UCW.
But earlier this year, when JNTUK Vice Chancellor G Tulasi Ram Das – who took charge of the varsity after the MoU was signed -- tried to implement the agreement, he found himself unable to even speak with a UCW representative.
“I tried calling them, emailing them, and even faxing them many times,” Das told HT. “I got no response.”
UCW told HT that its officials tried to contact JNTUK during a 2011 visit to India, but could not. “We are unaware of subsequent attempts at contact by JNTU and would welcome the opportunity to further explore how to implement our MOU,” Ben Thapa, regional director, international marketing at UCW said.
But Das, who has also read multiple online comments critical of UCW, has decided that an agreement with the Canadian varsity was not in the best interests of JNTUK’s students.
The Kakinada varsity has convinced students enrolled in the exchange programme to complete their MBA at JNTUK, instead of going to the “dubious” UCW for a year, Das said.
The Canadian university also tried to convince Kurukshetra University (KU) to sign an MoU with it. But the Indian varsity was doubtful of UCW’s credentials and chose not to partner it, a senior KU official said.
“There was clearly something fishy about this institution,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
LMU, which is now battling British immigration authorities to earn back a license to admit students from beyond the European Union, signed an MoU with Chennai’s prestigious Loyola College in 2007.
But the questions about UCW raised by students also point to poor communication between such private universities and students – from when they seek admission all the way till after they graduate – whether or not this is by design.
Not a single student or graduate at UCW interviewed said he or she felt the university had accurately described its infrastructure during admissions.
UCW board steward LE Triplett told HT that international students are told “that we are located in the heart of downtown Vancouver, in a corporate business building,” in overseas information sessions. But unlike most reputed universities, UCW’s website is completely silent on its infrastructure.
Asked about students who are working at gas stations, construction sites or restaurants and bars after completing an MBA, UCW’s board steward LE Tripplett, indicated that the university would like to help these students and asked for their details.
Reputed universities typically keep track of their students and their post-graduation employment status. “What I can tell you is that we have many students who have secured excellent positions in industry and government, both in Canada and abroad,” Triplett said.
Last year, UCW shut down its campus in Victoria when it was no longer economically viable because of fewer students than at the Vancouver campus.
According to Triplett, students were told five months before the closure about the plan, and were given the option of transferring to the Vancouver campus or continuing online.
But he accepted that some students were “disappointed.” Local Canadian news reports suggest students were quite upset and alleged they were not told about the possibility of the campus closing down at the time they were admitted.
And embarrassing details about the Eminata group – like Chung’s conviction – were never disclosed or explained to students at the time of admissions, students and faculty said.
Chung was ordered to forfeit all his assets to the court and to pay USD 12 million to students at the Wilshire Computer College which he ran with his wife Stephanie.
Asked about Chung’s past conviction, Thapa said: “I am unsure what the relevance is of a 21 year-old judgment regarding another school in another country,”
Students like Kumar who take out heavy loans to study in a foreign land may differ with Thapa.
(Some student names changed at their request to protect identity)