Mumbai/New Delhi/Bangalore: The exodus from India has begun. Every year, around this time, tens of thousands of students line up at embassies, search for airfare bargains, network on Orkut and other websites, embark on devotional trips to seek blessings, tearfully touch their parents’ feet—and leave home.
They have plotted the journey for years, people like Vincent Goveas, who hails from a small town in Karnataka. Since boyhood, the youngest of three dreamed of just one thing—being a computer engineer in the US. But after graduating in 2003 from Manipal Institute of Technology, a university off Karnataka’s west coast, Goveas first tasted the realities of an economic downturn. He received no campus placement offers and his US-based brother was moving back to India.
“I felt I was in a dead end,” says Goveas, who took a job at a call centre in Bangalore. He ended up speaking to people in America—endlessly, it seemed—instead of living among them. Then he landed a job at Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. He quizzed team leaders and colleagues overseas on how he could eventually make the move. Four years later, he begins his master’s degree this fall in software engineering at San Jose State University.
“I am not going there as an immature 21-year-old. I know exactly what I will do once I get there,” says Goveas who plans to gain a couple of years experience, save money to pay off his Rs20 lakh in college loans and then head home to India.
The Indian diaspora’s journey largely begins with the search for education overseas. Despite Indians returning home to take part in a booming economy and the growth of higher education, many young Indians believe opportunities overseas will better equip them to compete for the global job market—thus, the “brain drain” shows no sign of wane.
The number of students leaving India is expected to hit 100,000 this year, fuelled by greater prosperity at home. Thus, making overseas college price tags attainable as applicants are being coveted by foreign admissions offices and new education destinations as Russia and Australia, Germany and West Asia.
Education officials in Germany say the number of Indian students there has increased from 1,000 a few years ago to 4,000 now. They are just a fraction of the country’s 240,000 international students, but the rise is significant. “Education in Germany costs a fraction of what it would in many other Western countries. In addition, the high quality, coupled with hands-on practical exposure that students get, makes Germany a popular study destination,” says Niketa Dedhia, representative of Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, or the German Academic Exchange Service, in Mumbai. “Engineering, natural sciences and MBAs are the most popular programmes among Indian students.”
While such are the traditional areas of study for Indian students, many also are turning to unique and growing fields.
Sambit Mohapatra has won a full scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in movement sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He has been working as an intern at the Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi, administering physiotherapy to burn patients, and says the details surrounding his pending immigration are overwhelming.
Before he can go, he has to finish the internship, track down reams of documents, complete a visa interview, visit home in Orissa, and shop for clothes to prepare for the freezing winter in Chicago.
“I will be spending a lot of money,” said Mohapatra. “But that’s okay as I have a teaching assistanceship and will start earning as soon as I get there.”
The summer months of June, July and August are the busiest months for students heading for the US. “This is high point for student visas. We make sure we give priority to their interviews so that they can make it to class for the fall semester,” said a US Embassy spokesperson.
In 2006, the embassy issued 24,622 student visas, up 32% from 18,653 the year before.
Mohapatra has been reaching out regularly to the expatriate Indian student community on Orkut, the social networking site, for guidance, like what an I-20 form might be. (It’s an official government document certifying a person eligible to be a student.)
Of course, in US immigration jargon, Mohapatra is not a student but an “F-1 non-immigrant”, which refers to his visa status and his intentions to return home. Most Indian students applying for an F-1 visa tell the US embassies interviewing them that they intend to come home after completing their studies. The reality is a lot more complicated. Many successful non-resident Indians left India making the same??promise to return—but never did.
Mohapatra began dreaming of an American college education just 12 months into his nearly five-year undergraduate course. He cites low pay of physiotherapists in hospitals as the push factor. “We don’t have a representative council like the Medical Council of India, which represents doctors. Our pay is stuck,” he said.
The hunger for overseas education, especially among India’s rising middle class, has even become a marketing stunt. On 1 July, Jet Airways began discounts on student travel from India to New York, Singapore and London; knowing Indian mothers’ propensity to send their kids off with everything, from pots to pickles, the airline also waives certain charges for excess baggage.
Marrying the trends of international education and reality television, NDTV and mobile services provider Airtel teamed up to launch the “Airtel Scholar Hunt, Destination UK”, a competitive quiz show?to select five students for scholarships of Rs40 lakh each. “The initial applications ran into tens of thousands,” says Pramangsu Mukherjee, series director at Miditech, the production house that produced the show.
Winners will study at one of five British universities—the universities of Warwick, Cardiff, Sheffield, Middlesex and Leeds—where they will pursue an undergraduate degree in either engineering, media and journalism, biomedical sciences, computer science or management.
The UK has historically been one of the top choices among Indian students, partly because many institutions offer a one-year master’s degree. Currently, 23,000 Indian students are studying at UK institutions and the number is expected to grow. “Indian students seek a UK qualification as the duration is short,” says Suchita Gokarn, acting head of education promotion-India at Education UK, an arm at the British Council promoting UK schools. “There is a wide choice with a variety of entry levels and the qualifications are accredited worldwide.”
Australia has about 40,000 Indians studying at various institutions in the country, making it the second most popular choice after the US.
“The cost of study and living is considerably lesser than countries such as the US and UK,” said Vivienne Pereira, manager of IDP Education Pty Ltd, an organization of Australian universities. “For example, the living and studying cost of an Australian MBA is $33,865 (Rs13.7 lakh).” She compared that to nearly $43,000 in the UK and between $70,000- 90,000 in the US, depending on if an institution is public or private. An MBA course typically runs two years.
Other destinations such as Singapore, New Zealand, Ireland, Russia, Dubai, France and Germany have also seen a growth in the number of Indian students seeking admissions at their institutions.
“Russia has emerged as a tried and tested destination for quality medical education,” says Ashish Sonde, managing director of International Foundation for Studies and Culture, an accredited organization promoting Russian education in India. More than 2,000 Indian students have chosen Russia as their destination to study medicine and engineering. With the overwhelming response, Russian universities such as the state medical universities in St Petersburg, Ryazan and Saratov have increased medical seats by 30% for Indian students.
Sonde says the average annual fees for medical education in Russia, including hostel, is Rs1.15-Rs1.50 lakh. The Medical Council of India registers medical degrees from these universities, after the mandatory screening test required for all foreign returned medical graduates.
Indeed, the plans to return have already started. “US experience can make me a better professional, but I know where I want to live when I am older,” says Goveas.