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Why do you want to study abroad?

More career-oriented students redirect from the UK to the US, while potential immigrants go for Australia or Canada

education Updated: Mar 14, 2012 10:39 IST
Dr Rahul Choudaha

Where are Indian students likely to apply in the 2012 admissions cycle for starting their programmes in 2013? To answer this question, we need to understand students’ primary motivation for going abroad and segments of students.

The study abroad decision-making process is a complex interplay of many variables, including future job prospects, cost of education, scholarships, availability of quality local programmes, social recognition and opportunities of immigration that differ based on students’ academic and financial ability.

The study abroad application process is time-intensive as international students typically apply nine to 12 months in advance. Thus, the applicant trends for the incoming class of 2013 will be influenced by student perceptions and expectations of their external environment in 2012.

Since studying abroad is expensive, prospective international students’ sensitivity to external factors, such as immigration policies and economic outlook, is quite high. For example, the declining availability of financial aid due to budget cuts in universities, low job prospects, and devaluation of the Indian currency may make it difficult for Indian students to go abroad. Prospective students intuitively perform a cost-benefit analysis of their study abroad investments, weighing the expected total outflow against projected returns in terms of achieving their objectives.

Indian students going abroad can be classified into two segments – one moves for advancement and the other for immigration. The groups differ because of their motivation, targeted destination, and intended level of study. The table below is not all-encompassing, there are students who overlap both segments – but it provides a framework for deepening our understanding of the student segments.

The advancement segment comprises of students who want to go overseas in search of career advancement opportunities and are more likely to enroll in graduate level programmes. They perceive the US and UK to be countries offering higher quality programmes. Global rankings that repeatedly show the dominance of American and British universities reinforce perceptions of institutional quality in these two countries.

Students of the immigration segment primarily go abroad to use education as a pathway to immigration. They typically do not want to invest much time and money in education and hence enroll in programmes that offer higher potential for immigration in the destination country. Given that Australia and Canada’s immigration policies welcome this pathway partly due to their skills shortage, many Indian students head to these countries for eventual immigration.

The US is a top destination for Indians. Of the 185,000 Indian students enrolled in higher education institutions abroad, the US leads with a share of hosting nearly 55% of all Indian students followed by the UK and Australia, according to UNESCO data. However, the US witnessed stagnancy in Indian enrollment numbers during the last couple of years. The residual impact of the recession made Indian students reassess their options. Availability of loans was becoming tougher and post-graduation employment prospects were becoming bleaker. With the economic uncertainty, some value-for-money conscious Indian students have been putting off their plans to study in the US.

However, there are signs that the trend is set to reverse, and the US will soon begin to attract more Indian students.

First, the US economy is reviving, and job pro-spects are improving. This is important for advancement students who prefer to remain in the US or work for a few years before returning to India. Second, US institutions are becoming increasingly aggressive in their outreach to Indian students. Third, the emergence of an undergraduate student pipeline in India is adding more students in the enrollment mix of those seeking to go to the US.

Finally, the UK, which is the strongest competitor for the US in attracting advancement students, is restricting post-education work opportunities by tightening immigration laws. In contrast, the US has adopted visa rules favouring international students. In particular, extending the ‘optional practical training for science and engineering' students to 29 months is a big attraction for Indian students as nearly 60% of Indian students enroll in master’s programmes in engineering and computer science. In fact, the number of Indian students taking up optional practical training increased by nearly 5,000 students in 2010/11 from the previous year.

The immigration segment heading towards Australia and Canada is also expected to increase. In Australia, the number of onshore visas issued in the fourth quarter of 2011 was 3,339 for the higher education category, whereas 15,031 visas were issued for the vocational education and training category. Canada, too, is attracting large number of international students to vocational programmes.

The writer is director of research and advisory services at World Education Services, New York