Watch for shifts in Indian outbound this year

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • India has increasingly become a key sending market and a major player in international student mobility
  • Indian students’ choice of study destination, however, is highly influenced by visa policy generally and the availability of post-study work opportunities in particular
  • The US is the top choice for Indian students, and the UK a traditional favourite as well, but recent developments in both countries have called their continuing appeal into question
  • This in turn has opened the door for alternative destinations to claim a greater share of the Indian outbound market

India has been a major driver of growth in overall mobility, and particularly so over the last few years. While it is perhaps somewhat overshadowed by China – which remains far and away the world’s leading source of international students – India’s growth has actually outpaced China’s between 2013 and 2015.

Indeed, as China’s year-over-year growth has begun to slow, India is emerging as a more important driver of future growth for receiving markets, including those outside of the major English-speaking destinations, such as China and Germany.

For the moment, consider this:

  • Indian enrolment in the US grew 62% between 2013 and 2015
  • The number of Indian students in Canada expanded by 40% over the same period
  • Australia also recorded 50% growth over those two years

In all three cases – the US, Canada, and Australia – India is the number two sending market, second only to China, and accounts for a substantial percentage of total foreign enrolment in all three destinations.

This stands in sharp contrast to the UK, where Indian undergraduate enrolments have fallen for five years in a row, and where overall Indian numbers fell off by 10% between 2013/14 and 2014/15 alone. That downward trend has pushed India to the number three position among sending markets for the UK, after China and the US.

Many attribute the falling Indian numbers to more restrictive visa policies, and particularly to moves that have reduced or eliminated post-study work rights for foreign students. Indeed, surveys of prospective students have consistently shown that post-study employment options are a major factor in the attractiveness of a destination. One recent study alone found that nearly four in ten students who opted out of studying in the UK did so because of concerns about their post-study work prospects.

In the end, this cause-and-effect relationship in the UK provides a cautionary tale of how a change in the perceived or actual attractiveness of a destination can result in abrupt shifts in student mobility.

We may be seeing another such case in New Zealand currently where increased scrutiny of visa applications has contributed to a notable decline in approval rates and total visas granted to Indian students through 2016. The importance of this development is that New Zealand has been on a growth trajectory since 2013, due in large measure to burgeoning Indian enrolment that included, for instance, a 45% increase in Indian student numbers between just 2014 and 2015.

So part of the Indian growth story for some major destinations is that they are picking up market share from others. But the bigger story at work here is that the Indian market has taken off again since about 2012, and, recent challenges of monetary policy aside, it shows every sign of being a major player in international mobility for many years to come.

The latest data from UNESCO reports 233,540 Indian students enrolled in higher education abroad in 2015 for an overall increase of 23% since 2013.

Trumping Brexit

Most Indian students (about half of all outbound numbers) go to the US. Meanwhile, the UK has been a traditional leading destination for years, and, even with the recent erosion of its market share, remains a top choice for Indians going abroad.

Recent developments in both countries, however, have placed a question mark next to those market share figures.

In the US, the new Trump administration is sending strong signals of more restrictive visa policies on the horizon, which has led in turn to a growing perception that the US may become a less welcoming study destination than it has been in the past.

Most recently, US lawmakers have introduced bills that, if passed, will lead to changes in the H-1B visa programme – that is, to the path to extended post-study work opportunities for many foreign graduates in the US. The H-1B is especially relevant to Indian graduates of US STEM programmes (science, technology, engineering, and math), and so the new bills, introduced at the end of January, have received considerable attention in the Indian press.

“Studies followed by [Optional Practical Training, or OPT] followed by H-1B followed by green card is the route taken by many international students, especially from India,” notes The Economic Times. As uncertainty grows over regulatory change to either the OPT or H-1B programmes, greater numbers of Indian students appear to be looking more closely at other destinations.

Naveen Chopra, founder and chairman of The Chopras agency, said in a recent interview with The Times of India, “Our company advises and processes applications for 36 countries worldwide. The number and mix of these countries changes when their regulatory frameworks change. Given the current US scenario, the countries that are seeing increased applications are Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Singapore.”

A similar pattern continues to play out in the UK where concerns about visa policy and post-study work opportunities weigh heavily on some prospective students from India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held talks with his British counterpart, Theresa May, in London late last year, and a bid to relax tough visa rules for Indian students and migrants was reportedly high on the agenda. In the end, Mr Modi’s efforts were frustrated and those same visa controls remain in place.

In a post-summit press briefing, Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman noted, “I did raise the issues of visa fees, student visas, and how Indian students no longer prefer to go to UK universities, which was the top priority earlier, because of the nature of visa regulations and requirements.” She added that, due to the current visa policy in the UK, Indian students were showing a greater preference for alternate destinations, such as Australia and New Zealand.

Brexit is of course the other major development that bears on the UK’s international attractiveness this year. A recent item in The Hindustan Times cites international education consultant and researcher Dr Rahul Choudaha, who anticipates that post-graduation employment and immigration prospects will become more restricted during and after the Brexit process. Even with the high quality and reputation of British higher education, he anticipates that this will further impact the attractiveness of the UK for foreign students. “UK universities rely heavily on international students to meet their enrolment goals,” he says. “Competing destinations like Australia and Canada with more welcoming immigration policies may benefit from this turbulence.”

Where will they go?

As these comments indicate, Australia and Canada are expected to be among the big winners if Indian outbound numbers continue to shift away from the US or UK to any great extent.

But other destinations will contend as well, notably Ireland, which recently extended its post-study work window for advanced degree-holders from 12 to 24 months, France (which too offers a 24-month “stay back” option for Indian graduates), and Germany (with its strength in STEM programmes and an 18-month post-study work window for foreign graduates).

The bottom line is that Indian students are looking for quality programmes but also for a clear and predictable path to work opportunities after graduation. To the extent that their prospects of securing a study visa, and eventually a post-study work visa leading to such international professional experience, are cast into doubt, they will increasingly and actively explore alternate destinations.

Any such shifts are likely to be one of the big stories in international student mobility this year, and one that could have profound effects on the foreign enrolments of both established and emerging study destinations.



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