With abysmal levels of curricula, lack of industry connect, excessively expensive studies and prohibitions like reservation, Indian students are opting for foreign universities even at the graduation level

G Ulaganathan

G Ulaganathan

The author is a senior journalist based in Bangalore and has worked with two major English dailies, the Indian Express and Deccan Herald, He is also a visiting professor to a number of universities and colleges and writes for NYT. Currently, he is Bureau Chief (South) of Parliamentarian

GT Deve Gowda was not a name known all over the country till recently. But the Karnataka Assembly elections made him a hero. He defeated the incumbent chief minister Siddaramaiah by a massive 2 lakh-odd vote difference.

He was the JD(S) candidate and Siddaramaiah thought it would be a cake walk for him in Chamundeshwari constituency, from where he had won comfortably in the past. But that was so much day dreaming, and Gowda swept him out!

And his reward? HD Deve Gowda, the man who once ruled India as

Prime Minister, has made him

Minister for Higher Education in his son Kumaraswamy’s cabinet. This

came as a shock not only to the

people of Karnataka, but to the man himself.

GT Deve Gowda could not believe his eyes and ears. He was after all just an eighth standard pass and that is his highest educational qualification!

To be fair to him, he initially refused to accept the portfolio but the senior Gowda would not have a `no’ for an answer. He `ordered’ the former to assume charge immediately. And the faithful junior obliged.

Today, as Minister for Higher Education for a state that boasts of 55 universities and over a thousand colleges offering graduate and post graduate courses, he is all set to decide the destiny of millions of students over the next five years!

This is the pitiable plight of higher education in most of the states in India Today.

But then, what ails the Indian education system? Why do many students – and their numbers keep increasing every year — go abroad for higher studies?

There was a time, about three to four decades ago, when Indian college campuses used to have many foreign students, especially from third world countries like Sri Lanka, Mauritius, African and southeast Asian countries.

But today, their numbers have declined and on the contrary, the number of Indian students going abroad increases by nearly two lakh every year.

As per the data available now, there are an estimated 5.53 lakh Indian students studying in 86 different countries. USA, Canada and Australia account for two-thirds of this number.

While the data on number of Indian students who go to countries like the USA, Canada etc., is released by respective countries, the data on the number of students who go to certain other countries is not clearly known.

More than 50 per cent of the Indian students study in North America while about 90,000 students study in Asian countries as well as in Australia.

As per government data, 2,06,708 Indian students are studying in the USA. Canada is second in the list with an estimated 1,00,000 students, while Australia is third with 63,283 students. (Data up to 2016.)

Despite the Trump hiccups, the number of students going abroad to study is growing at a faster pace than ever before. Now there are new destinations like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and Germany. Ireland holds education fetes every year in New Delhi.

Poor Institutes

According to rough estimates, with total enrolled students of 34.6 million in the higher education system, India has one of the largest student populations in the world. There are a total 850 universities, compared to 799 in 2016. Fourteen universities are exclusively for women: four in Rajasthan, two in Tamil Nadu and one each in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Delhi, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand and West Bengal.

The total number of central universities now stands at 43, while the total number of government deemed universities is 32. There are 75 higher education institutes falling under Institution of National Importance category.

The figures are no doubt impressive but at the global level, where does India fit in?

Only three Indian institutes are in the top 200 universities in the world. As per the annual Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings 2018, US universities dominate the overall rankings.

While the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) leads the global rankings, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, only find their place at the bottom of the heap.

IIT-Delhi is at 172nd position, IIT-Bombay is at 179 and IISc Bangalore is at 190.

It is almost like the Olympic Games, where India sends huge contingents but is always found at the bottom of the table with single digit medals.

Raison D’être

With so many institutions of higher learning, why do students prefer to go abroad? Is it a loss to the Indian universities?

Says Dr SY Kulkarni, a senior educationist and presently Vice Chancellor of the Reva University in Bengaluru: “There are mainly two reasons: first, the rupee conversion gap is widening. If students spend Rs 15 to 20 lakh studying in a foreign university and get a nice job immediately after completing the course, he or she will earn back that amount within a year or two. And later, the earnings in foreign currency mean substantial savings in Indian rupees. Almost 90 per cent of the students who study abroad are offered jobs there, and after initial problems, settle down to a comfortable life in those countries.

Kulkarni adds: “Second, it is unfortunate that our curricula are still not in tune with the industry needs. In most of the foreign universities, especially for professional courses, there is perfect sync between the education system and industries there. Syllabuses are framed in such a way that the student, within a short span of time, almost gets a feeling that he is working while studying. University-industry-corporate collaboration is a major advantage for our students.”

Newer Pastures

Nearly 85 per cent of internationally mobile Indian students head for five countries: the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, but China and Germany are both emerging destinations for Indian students heading abroad, though the numbers heading for Germany are still relatively small.

Earlier, if one had to go to universities in France or Germany, one had to learn their languages. But now in most of the leading universities, the courses are taught in English. Or ready software is available to translate the text from any language to English. So the US and UK are not the only options now.

Australia is back as the second favourite choice for Indian students after a downturn for several years after 2009, when a number of racial attacks led to a drop.

In a new trend, Germany is emerging strongly as a favoured destination and could soon overtake the UK as the most popular study destination in Europe for international students.

UK has seen a major downturn as immigration policies have made it more difficult for overseas students to secure visas, with Indian students the most affected. And Theresa May’s right wing government seems to do her country more damage.

“The number of Indian students studying in Germany grew by 24.3 per cent to 11,655 last year due to lower cost of higher education there. It is one of the favourite options for Indians,” says Madhu, who is in the business of helping Indian students getting admissions as well as placements abroad.

After five years of virtually no growth in international students to Germany, the country attracted a lot of attention globally when it announced an initiative to waive off tuition fees for international students.

“Germany is also a leader in Europe and a technologically advanced country. It is seen as a place where cutting edge high-tech happens,” Madhu says.

China is a surprise. According to University World News, Indian students’ flow to China is almost all for medical studies, given a severe shortage of seats in medical colleges at home. “Unlike Indian students to other destinations, the vast majority who study in China return to practise medicine.”

Denied At Home

Overall, Indian student growth overseas is still powered by a lack of places in good Indian institutions, even for the best students. Even those with 90 per cent marks cannot be sure they will get into an institution of their choice.

The rising purchasing power among India’s growing middle class has increased the affordability of overseas study.

Banks and some private trusts these days fund almost 100 per cent of the education expenses. Though not all, some like the Cedilla of HDFC bank have been vigorously pushing their loan offers.

“Students will not be loan defaulters. Instead, they may become our bank’s long-time customers, once they establish their business abroad or return to India,” says one senior bank official who did not want to be named.

“The risk element here is very low. And giving funds for education is also one kind of CSR (corporate social responsibility) for us,” he says.

According to a study called “Indian student mobility to selected European countries: An overview” by researchers at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, the number of Indian students going overseas to study rose by a stunning 256 per cent – from 53,266 to 189,629 – in the last decade. The study reveals fascinating details about where Indian students are choosing to study when they go abroad, and why.

Countries like Sweden, Denmark, Italy, and Ireland are now in Indian students’ radars. The study observes that Indian students are looking at countries where “education is considerably cheaper and part-time jobs are easier to secure”.

A different study, done by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (ASSOCHAM) estimated that the hundreds of thousands of Indian students now studying abroad cost India as much as US $17 billion a year in lost revenue.

ASSOCHAM wants “more and more quality educational institutions to be set up in India on the lines of IIT and IIM in order to restrict the outgo of students”. They also say “good quality foreign universities should be encouraged to set up shop in India”. But they seem to be stuck due to a variety of strict government controls.

STEM Subjects

Most of the Indians studying abroad are doing so at the graduate level, with the most popular fields being business or STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects.

Most of them rely on scholarships and/or other financial assistance to fund their education, but the study notes that many Indian students pursuing degrees abroad are taking on heavy financial burdens and debt to do so. The study also reveals an interesting fact: the profile of the internationally mobile Indian students is changing. Traditionally, north Indians flocked to Europe for higher education, but increasingly, students from Gujarat as well as the southern states are making a beeline for institutes in those countries. And when it comes to scholarships and grants, most of them are bagged by students from southern India in recent trends.

According to Chanda and Mukherjee, who did the study, most students go abroad along with (a) a perception that foreign degrees translate into better employability and (b) India’s educational capacity remains limited, with excessively high costs of education. For instance, medical education in the country can cost up to Rs one crore for the duration, so Indian parents prefer to send their children to China and Russia.

Reserved Out

Moreover, the reservation policy reduces the availability of seats to ‘general’ category students, thereby weakening the prospects of a majority of students. Such stringent and often unrealistic requirements put students through extreme levels of pressure and lower their chances of attaining quality education.

According to Prof Manjunath, Head of the Department of Journalism and Communication, many middle and lower middle class families want to send their children abroad. “Initially they go for a short internship, and then they get paid for doing odd jobs outside the campuses. Though they have to spend about Rs 10 lakh, the parents don’t mind, as their children get the much coveted `foreign educated ‘tag. Almost every student gets `on-job training’ while still being a student. Back home, parents also feel they have gained in social standing, as they have been able to send the son or daughter for studies abroad,” says the professor.

There are many opportunities and a variety of courses, especially in Humanities stream, says Manjunath. “Also, a student, while studying print or television journalism, can also simultaneously enrol for related courses like script writing, cinematography or direction, advertisement planning, etc. Sky is the limit there,” he adds.

India currently ranks as the second largest market that sends its students to study abroad in spite of being home to world famous universities.

According to QS World University Ranking, currently India is only second to China in terms of international student enrolment in schools across the globe.

Some of the key factors that drive this process are ease of admission, more options, quality of the courses, easy emigration, etc.

Admission in India’s top ranked institutes is highly competitive, given that lakhs of students pass out of high school every year and seats available for admission are quite limited. IIMs (Indian Institute of Management), IITs (Indian Institute of Technology), and AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) are amongst India’s dream institutes that lakhs of students compate to get admission in. The race to secure admission gets much more intense depending on the level of study and discipline.

On top of it, students have to deal with the stress of acing entrance exams for certain disciplines for e.g. Joint Entrance Exams (JEE mains) for engineering colleges and National Eligibility and Entrance Test(NEET) for medical colleges. A study reveals that on an average, a student has lower than one in a 50 per cent chance at securing admission in a highly reputed Indian Institute of Technology.

Pathetically Yours!

Indian academic institutes focus only on delivering popular STEM courses. It is evident from the lack of professional institutes, so a niche segment of students who wish to take the road less-travelled still look to advance their higher studies abroad, just because their desired programme is not widely available in the country! Even if the course is available, they fall short of expertise and accreditation to shape talented students for a better career path.

On the other hand, there is a rich variety of courses available to international students in countries like the US, UK, and Canada. Schools in these countries offer courses in some of the most contemporary and unconventional fields like entertainment, sports, psychology and many more in greater scope and structure.

Even though the standard of courses available across colleges in India is developing, there still seems to be a yawning gap in practical application of skills learnt from conceptual understanding. And because of this, lakhs of students in India struggle to get job placements after graduation. The root cause of this problem goes back to the education system’s emphasis on learning to remember concepts rather than understanding them.

In contrast, schools abroad engage students in active learning through class participation, dialogue exchange, case studies, and practical off and on campus experiences that makes learning fun and meaningful. In addition, flexibility to tailor course as per student’s interest and freedom to work on part-time basis while studying adds to the overall appeal of earning a degree abroad.

Greener Pastures

Emigration is one of the main reasons why Indian students, especially at the graduate level, look to pursue a degree abroad. Countries like the US and Canada offer attractive job prospects after graduation and their flexible immigration policies allow students to seek employment on completion of studies. One does not really know how rabid Trumpism on immigration issues will shape up, but as of now this is the picture. The US National Science Foundation’s survey reveals that about 80 per cent of students from India and other Asian countries choose to remain in America after completing their graduate and doctoral studies.

In Canada obtaining permanent residence becomes easier once job is secured, and it serves as a gateway to higher salaries leading to better lifestyle and facilities. Students pursuing subjects in research-centric areas like biology or pharmacy do not receive enough support from Indian colleges in terms of infrastructure and resources. But colleges in US, Canada and Britain are abundant with resources to provide students with sophisticated technologies, equipment, and infrastructure to conduct in-depth research. Indian students also particularly choose to do research courses abroad because of favourable climatic conditions, habitat, and in some cases flora and fauna exclusively found in those specific locations.

Finally, studying abroad is often seen as the first step toward emigration. Of course, few students will admit this, but statistics show that a very large proportion of students from India — and also from China, South Korea and other Asian countries — choose to stay in the US following the completion of doctoral degrees. Data from the US National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates show that 80 per cent or more of students who complete their PhDs in the US from India and some other Asian countries remain in the US. The reasons for deciding not to return to India are varied. Better salaries and facilities abroad, easier access to research funds, working on cutting-edge topics, etc.While some come back to India later in their careers, the numbers are small. Once established overseas, either in a university or in the research or corporate sectors, it is difficult to return.

Stemming the Tide

There is no short-term solution to this problem for India. The only remedy is to build up high-quality capacity in key disciplines at national institutions so that a greater number of Indian students can obtain excellent training at home. This means significant investment over time, and careful choices about where to invest since all universities cannot be top research universities.

It also means significant changes in India’s academic culture to ensure that meritocracy operates at all levels.

Says Dr Vasant Kiran, an eminent classical dancer who is heading the Department of Performing Arts in one of the universities in Bengaluru: “The quality of faculty is also very important. Unfortunately in India not much care is taken while recruiting lecturers. The staff, most of them, have no industry experience at all and have no idea how a corporate system works. Most of the time, the teachers merely take out some points from a text book and make a power point presentation and students merely copy and reproduce in the exams.” Kiran, who has also taught MBA students (he is a qualified management professor as well), says the management institutes are the worst of the lot. “We have professors who have not worked with any of the companies, teaching MBA students subjects such as marketing, digital marketing, etc. Leave alone work experience, they have not even entered any major corporate set up to understand its working.”

It is quite true as in many institutions where journalism is taught both at graduate and post graduate levels, many of the staff members have never entered a newspaper office or a television studio to understand how media works.

Same is the case with many professional institutions across the country. Practical hands-on courses with work experience at various levels are what the student is craving for. And when he or she does not get it, they set their sights abroad.

Indian students are considered to be some of the brightest brains internationally and they are welcome with open arms everywhere.

May be Mr Donald Trump is an exception.


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