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The covid pandemic brought unforeseen challenges for Indian students aspiring to study abroad. However, it did not take into account the determination of the country’s students in their desire to build a better life for themselves.

As international borders began opening up around July and August this year, we saw a multitude of Indian students rushing to the consulates of various countries in order to get their study visas approved. In August, with India’s vaccination programme picking up speed, 17 member nations of the EU agreed to lift travel restrictions for those who had received both doses of the Covishield vaccine. The American mission in India that issues both immigrant and non-immigrant visas to Indians seeking to enter the US witnessed an unprecedented flurry of activity around that time, as students hastened to its embassies and consulates. Even as the student season got delayed by a couple of months this year, the US embassy and its consulates worked overtime to process a record number of applications and provided visas to over 55,000 students for the fall semester that is now underway in American universities. The mission is now looking forward to facilitating the entry of students for the spring semester, which begins in January next year.

What exactly makes studying abroad such an attractive option for Indian students?

Namita Mehta, president of The Red Pen, a global independent education consultancy that helps applicants navigate the admissions process, says, “Indian students choose to study abroad due to four keys reasons in our experience. One, the unmatched infrastructure; two, a diverse international community that fosters more innovation and learning; three, the flexibility of the system, [such as] options to switch majors and still graduate on time; and four, the ample opportunity for research and practical experience that is integrated into most university curricula."

The US alone has over 4,500 universities that provide a gold standard of education, featuring state-of-the-art infrastructure and technological back-up as well as flexible academic programmes coupled with opportunities to gain hands-on training. Studying at some of the best universities across the world not only provides Indian students with a chance to build strong professional networks, but also eases the path for those who intend to settle abroad.

However, the quality of the experience that students have in a foreign country is heavily dependent on the residency rights available to them, which in turn is closely tied to immigration laws there. Conventional routes, like opting for an F-1 visa for studies in the US, followed by an H-1B visa for work, have severe drawbacks. For example, students’ freedom to study and work gets tied to the universities and employers that sponsor these visas. The temporary nature of these visas and the capping of visa applications through the US H-1B lottery system have only further complicated the path to putting down roots in America.

However, there are certain government-run immigration programmes in developed countries that can significantly improve the experience of Indian students, as they provide long-term residency options. These programmes provide investors with an opportunity to diversify their portfolios by investing in a foreign country, with the added benefit of acquiring either a permanent residency permit or citizenship there.

A growing number of Indians are applying for such citizenship or residency permits by using these investment programmes, with a majority of them doing this to support their children’s foreign education and global career goals. Parents feel that by using this route, they can provide a level playing field to their children, who can then go on to compete with their global peers without worrying about their temporary visas putting a premature end to their dreams.

One such programme that is very popular with well-heeled Indian families is America’s EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program. This scheme offers investors, their spouse and children the advantage of US ‘green cards’ in a few years’ time should they invest $500,000 in a US project that creates at least 10 American jobs. Green cards provide a wide range of benefits to international students, such as a greater chance of gaining admission to institutions of higher learning, as many colleges would not classify them as international students. As green-card holders, students can also access scholarships and loans in the US more easily, and they may even be eligible for lower tuition fees. The career opportunities that open up for students with green cards are significant, and there is no dependency on an employer for visa sponsorship. They could very well even start their own business straight after college.

Portugal’s Golden Visa Program is a similar alternative to the US EB-5 visa scheme. It allows for European permanent residency upon investing a minimum of €280,000 in that country.

Both the US and Portuguese programmes offer an optional path to citizenship in these countries after a few years. If better education, employment and lifestyle opportunities weren’t motivation enough, a US passport allows visa-free travel to as many as 187 other countries (a Portuguese passport does the same for 188), as compared to the 58 entry options that an Indian passport provides. Perhaps this is a big reason why the demand for the US EB-5 visa has increased almost fourfold in the past few years. Applications for Golden Visas in European countries such as Greece and Portugal have also witnessed a substantial increase, resulting in real estate booms in these countries. Various other nations have such schemes too.

Whether through investment programmes or conventional routes, Indian students are getting to spread their wings abroad. This will help rebuild bridges towards a globalized post-pandemic world.

Shilpa Menon is senior director, India, LCR Capital Partners.

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