The best study abroad destination for Indians in 2019 is the UK
Whizzing into professional and life success. Source: Shutterstock

Indian students planning to study abroad this year could pick no better time to apply to a UK university. As Brexit looms and no signs of study and visa restrictions in the US slowing down, the circumstances present the UK as the best possible option for Indian students.

UK universities are bracing for their financial coffers to shrink thanks to Brexit. They stand not only to lose a pool of EU students post-Brexit, but also the European Research Development Fund – a specially-allocated investment that funds a substantial number of projects amounting to more than £26,627,123 between 2014-2020 – across higher education providers in the UK.

To offset this, leading universities are looking to recruit more non-EU students, especially those from China and India, according to Sir Anton Muscatelli, Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow University and Chairman of the Russell Group. Fees for international students are substantially higher than domestic students, starting at around £10,000 (~US$14,130) and soaring as high as £38,000 (~US$53,700) or more for medical degrees.

Speaking to daily newspaper The Times,  Muscatelli said: “Many universities will try to do this because it will be the only way to respond to a sudden fall in income.”

Indians used to make up the second-largest pool of international students after China. In 2010/11, there were as many as 39,090 Indians studying at UK universities. But a crackdown on nearly 800 bogus colleges (which were bringing in Indian nationals for non-academic purposes) and the removal of the post-study work visa (a motivation for self-financing students) led to a steady decline of Indians heading to the UK to further their studies.

In 2016/17, only 16,550 Indians were studying at UK universities, a fraction of the numbers from just a few years ago.

Today, the US is the top study abroad destination for Indian students, with 135,773 studying there, followed by 46,316 in Australia and 19,905 in Canada, according to UNESCO data. The UK is the fourth-most popular study abroad destination, with 16,655 students.

But the latest data announced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) last week show that the trend is on the up. “In 2017/18, for the first time this rose to 19,750, the same level it had been at in 2013/14”, HESA said.

“Immigration statistics published by the Home Office in November 2018, which compare the year ending September 2018 with the year ending September 2017, also noted a rise in sponsored study visas granted to Indian nationals (up 33 percent to 18,735),” it adds.

It could be a while before the UK loses its “hostile environment” reputation among international students, but these recent measures will help make the country a more attractive study abroad destination among Indians and other non-EU students.

There has been some relaxation over post-study work rights for international graduates. Twenty-seven universities are running a visa pilot where international students will be allowed more time to get a job after graduating, as well as being able to take up a job after finishing their course without waiting for their degrees to be awarded.

The UK will remove the cap on the number of visas for skilled immigrants. Indians received 55 percent of of all Tier 2 skilled worker visas in the year ending September 2018. Source: AFP/Oli Scarff

From 2021, both international undergraduate and postgraduate students will be able to legally remain in the UK for six months to find work after completing their course. For PhD candidates, it is one year.

“We will also allow for students studying at bachelor’s level or above to be able to apply to switch into the skilled workers route up to three months before the end of their course in the UK, and from outside of the UK for two years after their graduation,” said the White Paper released last December.

Less greener pastures across the pond

While the UK scrambles to make itself more attractive to international students, the US is heading in the opposite direction. Since 2017, the Trump Administration has been gradually shutting foreign talent out.

Central to this is the onslaught of restrictions placed on the popular H-1B programme, which allows US employers to bring in foreign-born graduates to fill positions that are unmet by the local labour force. For years, the visa programme was highly popular among Indian graduates – which make up the bulk of those receiving the visa – as a pathway from international student, to skilled expatriate en route to gaining permanent residence and ultimately, US citizenship.

The H-1B programme, which is already based on chance due to its lottery selection system, was further tightened with more rules to make it difficult, such as requesting petitioners to provide more documentary proof, increasing inspections and reversing the Obama-era rule that once let students’ spouses work legally in the US.

Other US study visas are not exempt. Last year, a policy change altered how “unlawful presence” is calculated for F-1 students, J-1 exchange visitors and M-1 vocational students. Under the new guidance, educators fear the operationally-complex system would wrongly identify a large chunk of international students as failing to maintain lawful status, which could subject them to three or 10-year bans from entering the country.

International students in STEM courses would no longer be able to conduct their post-study Optional Training (OPT) through off-site placements anymore, as the rule now requires STEM graduates to be placed in-house at their employer’s worksite only, law firm Lewis Rice LLC wrote in Lexology

The American Dream can’t take off without the papers legalising an international student’s stay and work in the US. With the UK opening arms to welcome more non-EU students, it’s clear which country has the most to offer Indian students this time around.

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