Grass is not always greener overseas

Studying at western universities was the privilege of the rich. More often than not, bright students who won scholarships were only able to study abroad. We have heard about Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships. A few such scholarships and fellowships were available, and the brightest ones vied for them.

The situation has changed now. A large number of agencies are luring youngsters to study abroad and strike gold. This hype about overseas education has mesmerised the youngsters to a ludicrous extreme. Every young person dreams about going abroad for higher studies. They force their parents to take huge bank loans to fulfil their dreams. The parents, too, hope that their children will soon transform their family’s fortune for the better.

UNESCO data for January 2021 shows that more than 1 million Indian students are studying in 85 countries worldwide. As per the Government of India data, the total number of Indian students studying in the USA was 2,06,708 out of the total 5,53,440 students studying abroad in 2021.

According to a RedSeer report, it’s estimated that 1.8 million Indians will be spending $85 billion on education overseas by 2024. Most of them are attracted by global professional opportunities and world-class universities. Interestingly, Gen Z’s are motivated by ‘self-dependence’ and ‘living life on their own terms.’

There is a dark side to this adventure story. It is not always the academically inclined who venture on this journey. Very often, it is a blind man’s bluff. They have no idea about the academic demands of the universities they try to join or the work culture of these countries. They do not understand that money doesn’t grow on trees in any country.

Some universities abroad do not have stringent entry requirements, while others have preconditions like a good score in IELTS or TOEFL. There are newly formed institutions in some western countries that thrive on overseas students. Next to China, India is their most-favoured milch-cow. They relax conditions for admission to attract more of them for sheer financial gain.

Young Indian students become victims of the nexus between agencies in India and spurious universities abroad. Recently, when I visited a church in one of the western countries, I was shown two large boxes meant for charity. One was labelled ‘food bank,’ and another ‘clothes bank’. I was told that the ones who came to pick up the food and clothes were often Indian students. I was also told that these young students do not complete their studies and do not get good jobs. Obviously, they are not the hard-working kind. They came to these countries with false notions and were soon disillusioned. Their lives become miserable, to say the least.

These students do odd jobs just to earn their daily bread. They do not even get good housing. Landlords do not let out their houses to these youngsters. Some overstay their visas and get into legal issues.

Recently, there was a report that five Keralite care-home agents in the UK were punished for recruiting and exploiting vulnerable students. In Kochi, there were only around 30 agents until recently, but now they have mushroomed to a staggering 175. The same is true of most cities and towns. You can see hoardings of agencies everywhere.

Some of these agencies indulge in dubious transactions. They deposit money into the student’s bank account for a short period of time to gain a visa; the deposits are charged a high rate of interest.

The Government of India would do well to take a close look at the plight of the gullible youngsters and the game played by the agencies to lure them. These agencies need to be regulated strictly. We should not allow the blatant exploitation that is going on.

One of the reasons cited by the aspirants is that the standard of education is higher in those countries, which is not entirely baseless. They say they have better job prospects and better salaries abroad, unlike here; liberal western culture is another big draw for students. These genuine concerns have to be addressed in the interest of the country.

We have to make our institutions of higher education worthy of public trust and universal acclaim. They must become citadels of learning, attracting talent from all over. Truly universal in perspective and vision.

The Travancore Maharaja famously invited Albert Einstein to be the first Vice Chancellor of Travancore University in 1937 (now the University of Kerala). That is the kind of vision needed in higher education. Where do our universities stand today?


Prof. Mathew C Ninan, Director of Little Rock, Brahmavar, Udupi
Published in the Deccan Herald dated May 30, 2023