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Change in ‘course’ of action: Rise in students applying to foreign varsities

To attract more international students, universities are waiving off application fees, lowering their criteria for standardised entrance tests or even doing away with tests altogether and offering scholarships, making it relatively easier to apply.
By Priyanka Sahoo and Shreya Bhandary, Mumbai
UPDATED ON APR 26, 2021 12:21 AM IST

On Thursday, 17-year-old Bengaluru resident Praajna GB received a conditional offer from the University of British Columbia, Canada, for admission to its Bachelors of Applied Sciences course. Almost a month ago, he received a similar offer from University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Both offers will stand only if he secures a certain score in his class 12 board exams. However, on April 14, Union education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal announced that Class 12 board examinations for CBSE students would be deferred till June in light of the exponential rise of cases.

On June 1, the ministry will review the situation and announce fresh dates for the exams that were earlier scheduled to be held from May 4 to June 14. Praajna is now unsure if he can make it to either of the universities for the fall session that starts in August.

“I am watching the news constantly,” said Praajna.

iSchoolConnect, an artificial-intelligence-powered digital platform that facilitates university admissions around the globe, has registered a spike in the number of inquiries for study abroad, its head of Alliances and Marketing Vaibhav Gupta said. “While earlier, we courted around 5,000 inquiries about admissions a month on an average, they’ve climbed to 10,000 inquiries now,” he said.

OnCourse Vantage Pvt Ltd, an education consulting and test-prep company that guides students with applications, also reported a similar trend, chief executive officer and co-founder Alisha Mashruwala Daswani said. “This spike can be attributed to two factors. Last year as Covid-19 cases surged and travel restrictions were imposed by countries, many prospective students decided to defer their admission by a year. Another reason could be that with uncertainties over admission and entrance exam schedules in India, students want to keep their options open and are applying abroad,” she said.

Last year, most universities around the world struggled to fill their foreign student quotas as travel restrictions and uncertainty over classes made prospective students defer their plans.

To attract more international students, universities are now waiving off application fees, lowering their criteria for standardised entrance tests or even doing away with tests altogether and offering scholarships, making it relatively easier to apply.

Admissions to universities in most countries are based on marks secured in standardised tests such as the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) for business administration courses and Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) for science and technology courses. Additionally, prospective students may be required to take language proficiency tests such as Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

“Many universities in the United States of America, including the one I secured admission in, have relaxed their entry criteria. Some have waived off GRE scores or reduced the minimum score to attract more students,” said 30-year-old Yash Nayak from Bhilai, who graduated as a civil engineer in 2013.

Having secured admission in the State University of New York at Buffalo for a Master of Science in Management Information Systems, Nayak aims to join the fall session.

While study abroad is a preferred choice among those wishing to pursue higher education such as Masters and postdoctoral work, this year, many prospective students are applying for undergraduate courses, too, owing to ambiguity over admission schedules in India.

Last year, common entrance exams such as the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) and National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) were delayed by several months; this year, too, they have been deferred. NEET-UG, usually conducted in May, is scheduled to take place in August this year. The third session of JEE Mains was scheduled to take place in the last week of April but has now been postponed indefinitely. Maharashtra common entrance test (CET) cell has not yet announced registrations for entrance exams to professional courses, which would usually be held in the month of May.

“As cases are rising every day, many parents have expressed concern about delays in entrance exams for admissions to undergraduate courses. They are worried their ward will lose precious time waiting for admissions to begin in India. Meanwhile, most universities abroad have been able to stick to their timelines and parents find it a more pragmatic option,” said Gupta.

While the pandemic has made it slightly easy for Indians to apply for and secure a seat in a foreign university, physically making it to the campus continues to remain a challenge as the Covid-19 pandemic has so far affected more than 145 million people across the globe, as on Sunday.

Growing anxiety over travel plans

Nayak has been trying to schedule a visa appointment with the US embassy for weeks now with no luck. “The embassies in New Delhi and Mumbai are shut because of the lockdown. There are very few slots available for visa appointments and they get booked very fast. Most of my time is spent online keeping track of the slots,” he said.

Nayak, like many such students, doesn’t want to take the course online. “I am applying to a foreign university to get world-class, hands-on training. I am investing a considerable amount for this through my fees, for which I am taking a loan. I don’t think online classes can match up the experience one has on campus,” he said.

Sakhi Dua, 26, had applied to six universities in the US last year for pursuing MBA in finance. After delaying her plan by a year due to the lockdown situation, Dua is now worried she may end up losing another year.

“The universities are still contemplating hybrid course-plan (mix of online and offline) for the first-year batch, but that defeats the purpose of applying for the course altogether,” said Dua, a Mumbai resident, who is currently working with a multi-national company.

She has already decided to opt for the February-intake session instead of the September session in the hopes that the situation would have improved by then.

“My friends, who got admission last year, are currently attending online lectures, and are facing a lot of trouble due to the time difference. If the situation doesn’t change, I might opt for a one-year certificate course in a foreign language in India and opt for my Masters course only next year, when hopefully the situation will be back to normal,” said Anuj Patel, 23, who wants to pursue a degree in Data Science in London.

Most universities in the US have made it mandatory for students to take both vaccinations before coming to campus, making Indian students worry about their turn to get the jab. Although the Centre recently opened up vaccination to all adults, those between the ages of 18 to 45 can only get the jab once states procure them from vaccine makers, in India and abroad.

“Many universities in the US are now asking students to come to campus and get the vaccine there,” Gupta said.

As countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Singapore put India on a ‘red list’ that restricts travel from here to these countries, students have another reason to worry.

Ayush, a 28-year-old from Mumbai, was admitted to the Parsons School of Design for a Masters course in Strategic Design Management in New York last year. Having completed his first year online, he intends to fly to New York ahead of the classes in the fall semester. “My visa appointment keeps getting cancelled and there is no certainty of flights,” said Ayush.

Aviraj Singh, 27, had secured admission for the February session this year for a master course in Data Science at RMIT University in Melbourne. Unable to go to campus, Singh is now taking online classes. “Since the pandemic seems to be severe in many parts of the world still, it looks like my entire year will be spent online. The point of attending an MBA programme in Australia was to be able to pursue internships between semesters and gain work experience there but now, I’m stuck at my home attending lectures, which defeats the purpose of joining this course in the first place,” said Singh.

Student-run portal to help aspirants with applications

A group of Indian students studying in various foreign universities in different parts of the world have come together to help students who wish to get help with the application process to these institutes.

Founded by Devika Ghosal, a student of the University of Warwick, and Yash Gulati, a student of Queen Mary University of London, Inforens is an online platform that connects aspirants to existing students and helps them with their applications free of cost. Both Ghosal and Gulati are the first generation of students in their family to study abroad and wanted to help many like them reach good universities without having to shell out a lot of money.

“A lot of money is being charged by private educational consultants, so only rich people reach up to them. Talented students, who have skills but are not rich, don’t even dream to go abroad for education so we want to change this and help them get scholarships in good universities across the world,” said Gulati.

With the pandemic and the resultant restrictions around the globe, Gulati said the entire university experience has changed, as institutes have adopted a blended approach that is likely to continue to some extent even in the future. “While in-person teaching is likely to start as soon as the pandemic settles, universities will continue to use online examinations, programmes, etc to allow flexibility to the teaching faculty as well as students. Thus, international students can use this as an advantage as they have more time and flexibility to focus on career development, job applications, or future planning,”.

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