Rural Indians join Rush to study abroad as outlook dims at home

By Reuters IST (Released)

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As many countries are now lifting COVID restrictions, the number of Indian students going to places like the US, Canada, Australia, UK, Ireland and New Zealand was nearly a million at the start of 2022, roughly doubling from pre-pandemic levels, according to the government. and industry estimates.

When 19-year-old Sachin failed to get the grades, he had to get into a good Indian university. Her father, a small trader, took out a loan and dipped into family savings to help her get a Canadian student visa.

The 2 million rupees ($25,035) they raised covered English language tuition provided by Western Overseas, one of dozens of visa consultants in Ambala, about 250 km from New Delhi, who promise a better life through study abroad.

“My dream is to move abroad because I don’t see a future in India,” said Sachin, who uses only one name. He now plans to fly to Canada where he hopes to complete a two-year degree in business management and possibly secure a longer work visa.

While middle-class Indians have for decades sought better prospects in other countries, deteriorating economic conditions are now pushing families in the poorest rural areas like Sachin’s to make big investments to create a new life for their children abroad.

Sachin says his two friends now in Canada earn around C$1,200 ($918) a month through part-time work while studying for degrees.

As many countries are now lifting COVID restrictions, the number of Indian students going to places like the US, Canada, Australia, UK, Ireland and New Zealand was nearly a million at the start of 2022, roughly doubling from pre-pandemic levels, according to the government. and industry estimates.

Consulting firms like Western Overseas offer coaching for English proficiency testing, services for course selection, visa processing, travel and even internships for part-time work.

In Sydney, Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said more than 76,000 Indian students were now pursuing their studies in Australia, which is expected to accelerate after the two countries signed a bilateral trade pact this year.

Many are applying for short courses in Canada and Australia, driven by increasingly bleak job prospects at home and as Western governments ease immigration requirements to fill university vacancies. and jobs.

According to a 2021 report by Red Seer, a consultancy, the overseas education market is expected to more than double to $80 billion by 2024, from around $30 billion, as global incomes and the aspirations of the middle class are rising.

Rising cost of private education and declining job opportunities in the public sector and industry in India have forced thousands of families to mortgage property or take out bank loans for college education. abroad, visa consultants said.

Not even a 7% drop in the Indian rupee this year has deterred families from shelling out the fees.

“The return on investment is very, very good,” said Piyush Kumar, IDP Education’s South Asia manager.

The Melbourne-based company sends Indian students to English-speaking countries, including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

The company plans to open 27 offices in small towns across India this year, encouraged by a more than 90% increase in registrations after two years of the pandemic, he said.

STUNNING PERSPECTIVES

Several overseas universities and their local partners are hosting education fairs in expensive five-star hotels and through virtual sessions in small towns to entice students.

At one such event, more than 500 students recently gathered to explore opportunities with more than 40 universities from Australia and Canada at a luxury hotel in Chandigarh, about 40 km from Ambala.

Gagandeep Singh, a small businessman from nearby Dera Bassi, came with his daughter, who has received offers from some Australian universities.

“I focused on the University of Canberra, where my sister did a master’s degree in pharmacy,” said Jashandeep Kaur, Singh’s daughter, citing women’s safety and career prospects as her main considerations.

Improved internet access in recent years has allowed visa consultants to reach new markets in rural areas, in addition to traditional advertising channels.

“We publish our success stories on Facebook and other platforms,” said Bhupesh Sharma, marketing manager of Western Overseas, which has expanded to nine major cities in northern India and sent nearly a thousand students abroad.

“We aim to send around 5,000 students abroad this year,” said Pradeep Baliyan, its founder, adding that they have also opened branches in Australia and Canada offering placement services.

With more than 300 million students in school and a growing number of applicants for higher education, India is struggling to provide enough university places and jobs for its young people.

The outlook for women is particularly bleak, with a participation rate of just 25%, the lowest among major economies. This, coupled with the elimination of millions of salaried jobs in recent years, has driven many Indians away.

ATTRACTION FACTOR

Indeed, many Western countries cannot reopen fast enough after two painful years of pandemic travel restrictions that have starved their economies of foreign labor and universities of fee-paying international students.

In particular, the continued absence of Chinese students, with Beijing’s strict zero COVID border policy still in place, has made Indian students even more important and intensified competition in the global education sector for their fees.

“The ease of obtaining permanent residency has become a big draw for Indian students rushing to Canada,” said Rahul Oswal, the founder of consultancy Wisdom Overseas.

Compared to the UK and US, Canada’s postdoctoral work and residency programs are much more flexible, he added.

Canadian universities are partnering with international consultants such as ApplyBoard and IDP to tap into the growing demand for foreign education in outback India.

“We have a partnership with universities on the one hand and on the other hand linked to local immigration services in India,” said David Tubbs, director of marketing communications at ApplyBoard, which runs an online platform for recruitment. of international students.

Those agencies hold about eight to 10 shows a year, including a big conference for the busy September back-to-school season and one in May, he said. A recent recruiters’ workshop in New Delhi attracted more than 1,100 people.

According to ApplyBoard, Canadian universities are more affordable than the UK, Australia, and the US. Annual Canadian undergraduate overseas tuition fees averaged C$32,019, while graduate tuition fees averaged C$19,252, Tubbs said.

NO MORE IRON RICE BOWL

Despite the promises, the transition to a new life in the West is neither easy nor guaranteed.

Many visas are currently stuck in limbo in places like Australia as immigration officials struggle to clear a backlog of applications made during the pandemic.

The costs of studying and living in countries like Canada, Australia and the United States are also extremely high for low-income Indians.

“It’s a huge amount, paying three times the amount a domestic student pays is a major problem we face, especially when converted into Indian currency,” said Nitika Mishra, a broadcasting student at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. .

Yet even with the rupee around record highs, it’s a risk that many Indians remain willing to take.

Each year, Ambala, a colonial-era British Army cantonment, typically attracts hundreds of young people into the military with the prospect of lifelong employment.

However, recent amendments to the Indian Armed Forces recruiting scheme have reduced benefits and tenure, downgrading one of the few opportunities for social mobility in the country of 1.4 billion people.

It sparked violent protests in some places in June and forced thousands to reconsider their careers.

“I prepared for two years and had appeared for a written test to join the army. But now I don’t see any incentive to join,” said Vijay Chauhan, 18, who is studying English. at Western Overseas, where Sachin also obtained his visa. preparation.

“There is no choice but to leave India.”

($1 = 79.8875 Indian rupees)

($1 = 1.3067 Canadian dollars)

(Additional reporting by Anushree Fadnavis; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Sam Holmes)

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