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Indian Students Studying Abroad: Where They Are and Where They're From

Nov 27, 2021 10:33 AM 5 min read

There’s an old joke that all that Indian students want in life is to shift to the US, get American jobs, and spend the rest of their lives posting Instagram updates of their trips to US national parks.

Of course, it’s not just #wanderlust and not just the US that’s inspiring Indian students to pack their bags….

More Indians are studying abroad than ever before. According to several foreign education platforms, applications from Indian students for the 2022 fall intake at foreign universities have doubled YoY.

While much of this jump can be explained by the low base effect (read COVID-19) and pent-up demand, Indian students’ obsession with foreign education is hardly in question. Over 9 in 10 of them are reportedly eager to pursue studies abroad.

And not all who leave return.

By the Numbers

As of January 2021, over 1 million Indian students are studying outside India. Where are they from and where are they now?

The answer to the first question might be a little surprising. The bulk of these students are, in fact, not from tier-1 cities. And among colleges, emigration rates are particularly high among private institutes. One estimate suggests that in some high-profile schools, the number of high school students who went abroad for graduate studies had jumped to a staggering 70% in 2019 from 50% in 2010 and only 20% in 2000.

What subjects are these students eyeing? Mostly science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses, which offer lucrative pay packages that could go up to $200,000 per annum. Financial, accounting and economics courses are also popular choices. But for many students, it’s less a question of which stream to pursue and more about simply getting a foothold in their desired country, which is encouraging them to opt for anything from sports analytics to hotel management to the study of wine.

As for the preferred destination for students, there are the usual suspects. There are now more Indian students than Chinese in Canada today, where extensive diasporic connections and the benefits of the Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) continue to lure Indians in droves. The US, despite increasingly strict visa rules, remains a top destination thanks to the quality of its educational institutes and rich job prospects. The UK, which is eager to attract top talent post-Brexit, remains a top-contender with its two-year post-study work visa.

The UAE, however, tops the list. This can be explained by the large number of Indian nationals working in the UAE, who send their children to local schools. As such, a large chunk of Indian students in the Emirates are enrolled in primary and secondary education. But if we’re talking strictly about India-born students individually applying to foreign universities, the UAE falls in rank.

What’s driving these students away from home? The promise of greener pastures and greenbacks, primarily. The quality of education in places like the US and Canada is still miles ahead of the same in India, as are the post-graduation job markets. Case in point: in last year’s World University Rankings 2021, only three Indian institutions featured in the Top 200 -  IIT Bombay, IISc and IIT Delhi. To put that into perspective, the total number of universities in India stands at 935, (50 Central Universities, 409 State Universities and 349 Private Universities).


The COVID Effect

In 2020 alone 261,406 Indian students went abroad. That’s a high number, but it was about half of 2019’s (588,931), owing to the pandemic (which disrupted the entire education sector in a big way).

Speaking of which, the coronavirus didn’t dent Indians’ foreign aspirations, it merely delayed them. And it put them through hell while at it. Canada’s travel ban on Indians, for instance, caused many Indian students to travel to Canada via Moscow, Dubai, Serbia and other routes, sometimes having to shell out 3x more than their typical expenses. The delay in approving Covaxin and Covishield was an additional headache.


Circle the (Brain) Drain

Now, naturally, the prospect of bright youngsters fleeing Indian shores is a cause for worry. Mainly because it reflects the dire conditions of the nation's education sector. But the prospect of Indian students abroad opting to stay and work there and in effect becoming “non-returning Indians” is a bigger worry.

If a major concern in the 19th century was the drain of wealth (as propounded by Dadabhai Naoroji), a major concern today is the drain of talent (aka brain drain). And the irony of this flight of human capital accelerating at a time when GoI is courting foreign universities to set up satellite campuses in India is not lost on anyone!


How to Plug the Drain? 

The only fix is a long-term one: shoring up Indian education and offering high-quality courses at home, coupled with a corresponding jump in pay scales, so that Indian students don’t feel the need to go abroad to receive top-notch training and job offers.

The 2020 National Education Policy (which we covered in-depth here, here and here) is a step in the right direction. But a policy is only as good as its implementation, so only time can be the ultimate arbiter.


To Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

As for the “brain gain” countries, there’s little to complain about. Of course, there will be the occasional xenophobic outburst from Trumpian politicians, but in the end of day, they’re importing the top talent to help them grow their own economies. In the US, for example, the total economic contribution of international students in 2018 was estimated to be almost $45bn. They also helped support 460,000 jobs in the country (analysis here).

Foreign students also often pay more tuition fees than their native classmates. This is crucial revenue for universities (some of whom bring in over $10m in additional annual revenue thanks to this). And there’s also the demographic angle. Many of the destination countries - the US and UK, for instance - have rapidly ageing populations. This means international students are becoming increasingly important to keep classes full, tuition revenue up and institutions thriving.

But human capital flight is not just about money. It’s also about ideas and talent. The countless Indians working round the clock to help Apple or Microsoft devise their new product lines could have instead been here at home, nurturing a tech startup in Bengaluru or spearheading a biotech company in Hyderabad, had we created ample opportunities for them.

Case in point: Again, America, which is arguably the biggest benefactor of the brain drain. 40% of American Nobel laureates since 2000 were immigrants, 62 world leaders received higher education in the US (more than any other country), and 23% of unicorn startups in the US were founded or co-founded by international students.

Which is why countries like the US have a vested interest in boosting the “stay rates” for international students, at the expense of the home countries. No matter the occasional tirades about H-1B visas.


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