Chandigarh: When Amanpreet Bajwa and her husband Aman decided to go back to school to get advanced degrees, they opted to apply to universities in Canada.
Both in their early 30s, Amanpreet, a registered nurse, and Aman, an international English language testing system trainer, wanted the practical training, hands-on education and global exposure they believed only studying overseas would provide them.
After several years of careful budgeting, they managed to save the money they would need for the visas, tuition fees and living expenses.
Unfamiliar with the Canadian college system, they turned to a local educational consultant in Chandigarh for guidance on which schools they should apply to and how to navigate the visa process. The consultant asked for Rs5 lakh—Rs2.7 lakh upfront—for tuition and “consultancy fees”. When the couples’ visa applications were denied, he disappeared with the money.
Such stories are becoming increasingly common among Indian students hoping to study overseas—particularly those from cities in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.
The drive for overseas education has precipitated the growth of an industry of third-party education consultants to help match prospective students with suitable universities in choice destinations like the US, the UK, Australia and newer ones such as Singapore, New Zealand and Hong Kong, and parts of Europe outside the UK.
Mushrooming business: A hoarding of an immigration consultant in Amritsar.
Legitimate education consultants guide students on how to navigate the plethora of overseas options to find best-fit universities, how to write their applications and secure visas.
But some unscrupulous agents who charge students lakhs of rupees disappear. Others falsify visa documents—sometimes without students’ knowledge or consent—exposing them to the risk of being barred for up to 10 years from the country where they hoped to study.
Balwinder Iqbal Singh Kahlon, who heads an anti-fraud unit in Jalandhar police, says that on average he gets between 10 and 20 phone calls complaining about such agents each month in Jalandhar alone, although he suspects the vast majority of cases go unreported.
Earlier this year, concerns over the dealings of unethical education agents led David Manicom, a Canadian diplomat, to make a special trip to Punjab after the police connected a Jalandhar-based agent named Sandeep Ohri to 228 of the 500 student visa applications rejected by Canadian immigration. Many of the applications were accompanied by fake financial documents.
Ohri, who advertised his business, OGIC Education Consultants, through billboards across Jalandhar, newspaper ads and frequent radio and television commercials, managed to defraud thousands of local students and make off with tens of thousands of dollars before he was finally arrested, according to news reports. Many more like him continue to operate.
Offshoot of growth story
Arun Jacob, a Hyderabad-based education consultant specializing in New Zealand and Australian universities, and the founder of ArrayGlobe.com, a Dell-awarded portal for overseas education, says that in the absence of any regulations governing the industry, such fraud has gotten out of control, and is giving even legitimate agents a bad name. “There are too many unethical agents. The fraud in the documentation, the misinformation that is given to students is really bad,” Jacob said. “Crime has become too widespread.”
Naveen Chopra, who has been in the industry for almost 10 years (his education consulting company, The Chopras, is recognized by the Australian high commission as one of the “trusted” companies it recommends to students) says there is an important difference between so-called “agents” and proper immigration consultants.
“Consulting is when you holistically evaluate the student and suggest what is best for the student in terms of their course or university choice,” he says. “Agents often push the students to institutions where they’ll get a higher commission. Many an agent will almost always compromise the interest of the student in order to get a higher commission.” Unfortunately, according to Chopra, the vast majority of so-called education “consultants” in India, would be more properly classified as “agents”.
The burgeoning of the industry of international education consultants is integrally related to India’s own growth story. While most developed countries confront ageing populations, the numbers of Indian youth continues to swell.
According to the National Commission on Population, roughly half of India’s population will be in the 15-25 age group by 2016. Many of these will be born into India’s rising middle class—with aspirations for education and the resources to pay for it.
While India’s rising population is considered one of the country’s strengths, it also poses challenges.
For one, India’s higher education system is ill-equipped to accommodate rising demand. In 2010, at least 204,000 students applied to the Indian Institutes of Management for less than 3,000 seats at the elite business schools. Around 485,000 applied to take the test for 9,600 seats at 15 Indian Institues of Technology in 2010.
Even getting high marks is not always sufficient to secure a spot in a college of choice. This year, the cut-off for several of the most competitive programmes in Delhi University colleges was 97% and above.
“Indian education has become extremely competitive,” says Chopra. “If a student does not have top marks, many are left (with) very few choices often with no place to go.”
Earlier this year, the human resource development ministry estimated the number of Indian students pursuing higher education overseas at 264,000, spending approximately Rs27,000 crore abroad annually (more than twice the amount set aside in the Union budget for higher education).
International universities are keen to court Indian students, who often pay up to twice the tuition fee charged to local candidates. Globally, international education has become extremely profitable. In total, international students contribute $20 billion (around Rs96,000 crore) per year to the US—making education the fifth largest export service in the country.
Conflict of interest
Unable to interact with international students directly, many universities turn to international “recruiters”—many of whom also moonlight as education consultants, sometimes charging students exorbitant fees for their “services”.
Critics argue that this dual role—representing universities on the one hand, and “helping” students find suitable universities on the other—sets up a fundamental conflict of interest.
According to Jacob, MD of the Hyderabad-based overseas consulting firm, universities give commissions of 10-40% of the first year’s tuition fee for each student enrolled. “When someone offers 10% on a $20,000 course, some agents will do anything and everything including submitting fraudulent documents to get that student into that college,” he says.
But many agents—already receiving commissions from universities—are also charging students rates that are far above reasonable. In Punjab, some agents charge students up to Rs10 lakh in exchange for a “guarantee” that they will be successful in securing a visa and getting into their university of choice.
Philip Altbech, a researcher and expert on international higher education at Boston College, worries that conflicting financial incentives might drive agents to push students to apply to universities that are paying them—like Tri-Valley University in California or University of Northern Virginia—rather than the one that’s most suitable.
Tri-Valley was raided in January and shut down by federal authorities for suspected immigration fraud. University of Northern Virginia’s Annandale campus was raided in July.
“To me the basic dilemma is that the agents are representing institutions, not students, and their job is to get people in the door for the places that are paying them,” says Altbech. “They might have the world’s best interest in mind, or they might send students to Tri-Valley and other podunk universities regardless of whether it’s best for them.”
Managing the middleman
Such was nearly the experience of Vaibhav Mathur, a 22-year-old recent engineering graduate from the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. Mathur was interested in pursuing a masters degree from Middlesex University, and approached an agent offering educational services to the UK through a newspaper ad.
But it quickly became clear that he would not get any help applying to his university of choice. “They gave me bad advice and kept pushing Bedfordshire,” he said.
Luckily, his story has a happy ending: He fired that agent, hired the Chopras, has successfully secured a student visa, and will be leaving for Middlesex this month.
In February, the ministry of overseas Indian affairs announced that it would introduce legislation making it mandatory for agents to register with the Indian government or face fines and jail terms.
Receiving countries have had an equally difficult time deciding how best to manage the middleman: Australia, one of the first countries to heavily market higher education to international students, has a recommended list of education consultants belonging to an association. New Zealand has a similar list, while the US has eschewed “approving” agents, instead preferring universities to decide for themselves which ones to work with.
Jacob is doubtful how effective fines will be in deterring unethical consultants.
“One out of every 100 might get busted because a kid might complain,” says Jacobs. “But for every one that is shut down, five more start up—and you know how it is in India. You get busted, you pay the cops and you get out.”
Prashant Nanda contributed to this story.
This is the concluding part of a two-part series on unaccredited, for-profit schools and unscrupulous education consultants.