Why the US should hold on to Indian students

Indian students look at the 'second cut-off' list for admissions at Delhi University. Strong competition for places at India's top universities encourages those who can afford it to apply for degrees abroad.

NEW DELHI, India — What many young Indians will remember of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest foreign tour isn’t the $14 billion worth of deals he signed with the UK. For 96 million high school students here, Modi’s most important move was the appeal he made to the British government to be more generous with visas for Indians who want to study abroad. 

In the last three years, Modi pointed out, the number of Indian students in the UK has almost halved. The drop can largely be traced back to 2010, when the British government stopped issuing post-study work visas to skilled workers from outside the European Union. Suddenly, thousands of Indian students hoping to gain international work experience and pay off some crushing student loans were told to go home.

International students in the UK, like in many countries in the European Union, have to pay much higher tuition fees than EU citizens. Kanika Jha, who graduated from the London School of Economics in 2012, laments the fact that despite the economic boost international students provide, restrictive work visa policies cut off returns. 

Universities may deny that foreign students are cash cows, “but at the end of the day that’s exactly how we end up feeling,” said Jha. “You’re actually just restricting the way they will grow.”

The United States, the top destination for Indians who study overseas, would do well to take note. 

International students contributed $3.5 billion to the British economy over the last year. In the US, the figure is close to 10 times that: more than $30.5 billion. In both countries, Indians make up the second largest population of international students after Chinese scholars.

They aren’t just bringing the big bucks. Look at three Indian men who chose to get degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Stanford University and UC Berkeley respectively. Today, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai and Shantanu Narayen head Microsoft, Google, and Adobe Systems.

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According to Jamboree India, an institute that offers guidance to Indians considering studying abroad, interest in studying in the UK has fallen sharply over the last few years. Interest in American graduate programs, however, is on the rise. This academic year nearly 133,000 Indian students are studying in the country’s colleges and universities, up from 103,000 in 2013-14.

Most of the 15,000 aspirants enrolled at Jamboree want to apply for technical degrees in the US, and a majority of them would like to stay on and work there after graduation.

“The US has very high-quality technical courses, and is at the forefront of research and innovation,” said Vineet Gupta, the institute’s managing director. “The technology sector is doing very well and there is very high demand [for skilled employees in the US], so students who are going for a technical masters degree do end up getting good career opportunities.”

Just over 80 percent of Indians currently studying in the US are working toward degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.

India’s notoriously difficult admissions process for higher education also drives interest in an American education. Getting less than 99 or even 100 percent on high school exams can scupper admission to humanities programs, while one bad entrance test can destroy hopes of pursuing medicine, engineering or an MBA.

Yet even the highest-achieving Indians aren’t guaranteed a future in the US. International students who complete a year of education in the US are allowed to work in the country for a year after graduation. If you convince an employer to sponsor your work visa, you can apply to stay another three years. But applications have soared to such an extent that for the last three years straight the US Citizenship and Immigration Services has resorted to a lottery system to award visas — even for people with a masters degree or higher.

All job aspirants, from engineers to social science graduates, are thrown into the same ballot, which allocates a maximum 85,000 visas per year, including 20,000 reserved for people with advanced degrees. The system means that even if your firm is interested enough in you to take on the expensive sponsorship process, their investment may not pay off. It literally comes down to the luck of the draw.

Work visa restrictions and prohibitively high tuition fees have made Manvi Gautam, a senior writer at the India Today media group, decide against applying to US or UK universities. Instead, she is considering studying in Germany, where tuition is free for most courses. She admits, though, that it doesn’t have the same prestige.

“Both UK and US universities are still considered to be the best, and people usually prefer the tried and tested — although a degree from US or UK doesn't guarantee you a job back home,” said Gautam.

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A foreign degree is usually an asset even for those who return to India, but approval isn’t universal. Some employers view the time spent getting a graduate degree as wasted work experience years. Others may suspect graduates who studied abroad of lacking qualifications or interest in the Indian job market. Jha, the LSE alumna, took seven months after her return from London to find even an internship close to her interests.

Despite the difficulties, some Indian students are confident enough in their international value to attempt a move abroad. Samriddhi Gupta, a Mumbai-based consultant who recently interviewed with a top US business school, decided against applying to universities in India because of the emphasis on test scores and in the UK because of visa restrictions. She isn’t as concerned about the US, though.

“An MBA is a huge investment, and you want to be sure that you’re going to be able to get it back,” said Gupta. “Personally I’m not very worried about it, as these [major consulting firms] are big enough to influence these decisions, and they really want Indian talent.”

Gupta may be right. A shortage of American graduates in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — has led to a significant “tech talent gap,” with the White House estimating that half a million IT positions in the US are currently unfilled. Indians who study abroad, on the other hand, overwhelmingly enroll in STEM programs. Just over 80 percent of Indians currently studying in the US are working toward STEM degrees. 

While US firms want to hold on to these skilled workers, more international students are being forced to leave when they lose the work visa lottery. Immigration restrictions may not be enough to deter an aspiring Indian middle class that still wants its kids to get an American education, but US employers hoping to reap the benefits might just miss out.