Ambala / Sydney / Toronto-
When 19-year-old Sachin failed to score the grades he needed to get into a good Indian college, his dad, a convenience store owner, took out a loan and delved into family savings to help him get a Canadian student visa.
The two million rupees (US$25,035) they collected covered English language tuition fees provided by Western Overseas, one of dozens of visa advisories in Ambala, about 250 kilometers from New Delhi, which promises a better life by studying abroad.
“My dream is to settle abroad because I don’t see a future in India,” said Sachin, who only uses one name. He is now planning to travel to Canada where he hopes to complete a two-year diploma in business administration and eventually obtain a longer work visa.
While middle-class Indians for decades have sought better prospects in other countries, deteriorating economic conditions are now prompting families from poor rural areas like Sachin to make major investments to establish a new life for their children abroad.
Now in Canada, Sachin says, his two friends earn about C$1,200 ($918) a month working part-time while studying for their diplomas.
With many countries now lifting COVID restrictions, the number of Indian students heading to places such as the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, Ireland and New Zealand reached nearly one million in early 2022, nearly doubling from pre-pandemic levels, according to government and industry estimates.
Consultations such as Western Overseas offer training for English language proficiency tests, course selection services, visa application processing, travel and even part-time assignments.
In Sydney, Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said more than 76,000 Indian students are now pursuing their education in Australia, which is expected to accelerate after the two countries signed a bilateral trade agreement this year.
Many apply for short courses in Canada and Australia driven by increasingly bleak work-at-home opportunities, and with Western governments relaxing immigration requirements to fill university positions and job vacancies.
It is estimated that the overseas education market will double to $80 billion by 2024 from about $30 billion, according to a 2021 report from consultancy Red Seer, with rising global incomes and middle-class aspirations.
Visa advisors said the rising cost of private education and declining job opportunities in India’s public sector and manufacturing industry have forced thousands of families to mortgage real estate or take out bank loans for education abroad.
Not even the 7% drop in the Indian rupee this year has stopped families from paying the fee.
“The return on investment is very, very good,” said Piyush Kumar, Head of IDP Education in South Asia.
The Melbourne-based company sends Indian students to English-speaking countries including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
He said the company plans to open 27 offices in small cities across India this year, encouraged by a 90% increase in enrollment after two years of the pandemic.
Many foreign universities and their local partners organize educational fairs in expensive five-star hotels and through virtual sessions in small towns to attract students.
At one such event, more than 500 students recently gathered to explore opportunities with more than 40 universities from Australia and Canada at a luxury hotel in Chandigarh, about 40 km from Ambala.
Jagandeep Singh, a small businessman from the nearby town of Dera Bassi, came with his daughter who had received offers from some Australian universities.
“I focused on the University of Canberra, where my sister got her master’s degree in pharmacy,” Jachandeep Kaur, Singh’s daughter, said, citing women’s safety and career prospects as key considerations.
Improved Internet access in recent years has allowed visa counseling to reach new markets in rural areas, in addition to traditional advertising channels.
“We are publishing our success stories on Facebook and other platforms,” said Bhubesh Sharma, head of marketing at Western Overseas, which has expanded to nine major cities in northern India and has sent nearly a thousand students abroad.
“We aim to send about 5,000 students abroad this year,” said Pradeep Balian, its founder, adding that they have also opened branches in Australia and Canada to provide placement services.
With more than 300 million students in school and growing numbers seeking higher education, India is struggling to provide enough university sites and jobs for its youth.
The prospects for women are particularly bleak, with participation at just 25%, the lowest among major economies. This, along with the abolition of millions of paid jobs in the past few years, has resulted in many Indians being fired.
Indeed, many Western countries cannot reopen their doors fast enough after two agonizing years of pandemic travel restrictions that have starved their economies of foreign labor and universities for full-fee international students.
In particular, the continued absence of Chinese students, combined with Beijing’s strict policies to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, has made Indian students more important and intensified competition in the global education sector for their fees.
“Ease of obtaining permanent residence has become a huge attraction for Indian students rushing to Canada,” said Rahul Oswal, founder of consultancy Wisdom Overseas.
He added that compared to the United Kingdom and the United States, Canada’s residency and postgraduate work programs are more flexible.
Canadian universities partner with international consulting firms such as ApplyBoard and IDP to take advantage of the growing demand for foreign education in India’s remote regions.
“We have a partnership with universities on one hand and on the other hand, linked to the local immigration services in India,” said David Tubbs, Director of Marketing Communications at ApplyBoard, which operates an online platform to recruit international students.
He said these agencies host roughly eight to ten fairs a year including a large convention to receive a busy September and another in May. A state-of-the-art recruiting staff workshop in New Delhi has attracted more than 1,100 people.
According to ApplyBoard, Canadian academic institutions are more affordable than the UK, Australia and the US. Annual international undergraduate tuition costs in Canada averaged C$32,019, while graduate education costs averaged C$19,252, Tubbs said.
No more iron rice bowl
Despite the promises, the transition to a new life in the West is neither easy nor guaranteed.
Many visas are currently stuck in limbo in places like Australia as immigration officials struggle to end the backlog of applications during the pandemic.
The costs of studying and living in countries like Canada, Australia, and the United States are too high for low-income Indians.
“It’s a huge amount, paying three times the amount that a local student pays is a huge problem we face, especially when it is converted into Indian currency,” said Nitika Mishra, a student studying broadcasting at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. .
However, even with the rupee near record lows, it is a risk that many Indians are still willing to take.
Each year, the Ambala, a colonial-era British army camp, attracts hundreds of young people to the military with the prospect of lifelong employment.
However, recent adjustments to the Indian armed forces’ conscription program have cut benefits and length of service, reducing one of the few avenues for social mobility in the country of 1.4 billion people.
This sparked violent protests in some places in June and forced thousands to reconsider their career paths.
Vijay Chauhan, 18, said he took English lessons at Western Overseas, where Sachin also got his prep visa.
There is no choice but to withdraw from India.”
(1 dollar = 79.8875 Indian rupees)
(1 dollar = 1.3067 Canadian dollars)