Indian students’ hunger for foreign education: What is driving it, and has it changed post-pandemic? – Moneycontrol

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After her graduation, Faridabad-based Anika Singh is exploring a master’s degree in liberal arts or clean technology from either the UK or the US.
Singh was waiting for the COVID-19-related restrictions to end before embarking on her journey to study abroad. And 2022 seems to be the year to try out her options. While shortlisting choices, she has four clear points in mind – course focus, a good institution or university, not very high cost of living, and post-study work opportunities.
“What I am looking at is a good course that will make my professional life future ready and contemporary. I am looking for a full-fledged on-campus course than a hybrid one. UK is a possible good option for me. Else, there are three other countries — the US, Ireland and Germany,” said Singh.
Post COVID-19, there is a perceptive shift in how students are searching for study abroad destinations and their choice of courses. “While the traditional approach of undertaking a course in, let’s say, pure engineering, science or business has not changed significantly, now there is a growing demand for interdisciplinary courses, the ones with niche specialisations which command a market demand. Such courses are witnessing good traction. Hence, liberal arts or clean tech are two of my options,” said Singh.
Vivek Sharma of Delhi agreed. Sharma will be joining The University of Edinburgh (Scotland) in September to pursue an MSC in Sustainable Energy Systems. A masters in physics, Sharma said that post-COVID-19 outbreak, one thing that has surfaced for sure is whether the course you are pursuing from abroad has longevity, cross industry utility, and sustainability.
The University of Edinburgh’s course that he is set to pursue “gives an interdisciplinary play of solar, wind and marine” Sharma said, adding that in the post-pandemic environment, health and sustainability have come to the forefront.
“My choice of a foreign degree is driven by this idea, and hopefully, will make me future ready. While some courses like IT are in high demand, in a world that is getting automated, but your specialisation may get outdated in a few years. But environment and energy transition are here to stay. Let’s not forget we have a huge coastline, and we get plenty of sunlight as a country. This industry is ready to take off, and that drove my career decision,” he argued.
Sunit Singh Kocher, Chief Executive of Delhi-based study abroad consultancy Fateh Education, almost concurs. While about five years ago most of the queries were about business and finance education, two years ago it was data science which was in huge demand. Post COVID-19, while those two areas and STEM continue to drive the interest of students, he is witnessing demand for new-age skills – clean tech, specialisation in medical devices, psychology, liberal arts etc.
Not just the course
Kocher said beyond the course focus, students are considering the post study work visa, cost of living and the language advantage.
“We know the key destinations and some of the emerging foreign education destinations. But what students are very clear about these days is whether the course fits well with the destination. For example, if one is looking at automobile engineering, will Ireland be a good destination? Clearly, not a right fit, many would argue. But if one is looking to pursue a specialisation in medical devices or the pharma sector, then yes, Ireland is a very good choice,” Kocher said.
Another factor that students are considering is good post-study work opportunities. This is not just two years of post-study visa but opportunities beyond that. This has gained debate among the student community post the pandemic. Though no studies have been done on this account, anecdotal evidence shows some students are worried about the healthcare crisis they saw during the second wave of COVID-19.
Study abroad consultancies and students also point out that cost of living is a great factor while deciding on the destination city or country. For example, students in the UK may not mind joining a good university in New Castle instead of London. This is because while the cost of living in London is about £15,000 a year, it falls to around £10,000 in New Castle.
Ranking of universities too is a factor. While global university ranking is a key parameter, local ranking gives a better sense of a university’s value. “The University of Edinburgh where I am going is a top-20 university in the world, even though it is in Scotland. Several of my friends consider the rankings, both national and international. It’s not the only factor but certainly an important aspect while zeroing in on the place you wish to go,” said Sharma.
The advantage of English language for Indian students is a key factor, said Vaibhav Singh, co-founder of study abroad firm Leap Scholar. “Countries like the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, etc still drive a bulk of the Indian students’ movement. While the quality of education and university is a key consideration, the English language is a great enabler for Indians seeking to study abroad,” said Singh whose firm also facilitates study financing.
Besides, countries like New Zealand, Germany, France and Ireland are increasingly attracting Indian students. China was gaining momentum in this sphere in the pre-COVID-19 period, but that market may take some time to recover, say industry experts and students. Similarly, Ukraine, which was a favourite destination for medical education, is now out of consideration due to the war.
Pent-up demand
Singh of Leap Scholar said, in 2019, rough estimate shows that about five lakh students went abroad to study. But due to COVID-19, just around 50,000 went overseas the year after, he claimed. There is huge pent-up demand. A 20 something’s mind and life will not change just because of the pandemic. So, 2021 saw strong demand and it’s even stronger in 2022, he said.
“2022 will set a new all-time high in terms of study abroad market trends,” Singh claimed.
Experts argue that while the US remains the favourite destination for Indians thanks to the ‘American dream’, other countries like Canada, the UK and Australia have seen ups and downs in terms of their demand among Indian students. While Australia was the top destination a few years ago, and UK was down post 2012.  In the last few years, the UK and Canada have seen a surge in demand.
The number of Indian students studying in Canada grew by nearly 350 percent between the academic years 2015-16 and 2019-20. During this period, the Indian student community in the UK grew by 220 percent, according to a study by global education consultancy firm ApplyBoard.
However, the number of Indian students in the US declined by 9 percent during the same period, though it’s worth noting that this data omits students enrolled in Optional Practical Training (OPT), the US’s popular post-study work program. More than 70,000 additional Indian students worked in the US under OPT in each of the last four academic years, ApplyBoard said in January 2022.
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