For many years Indian students, the world's largest group of overseas students after the Chinese, rarely looked beyond Britain, the US and Australia for higher education. But changes in visa rules, fraudulent institutions that prey on unsuspecting foreign students and lack of opportunities to work after graduation in the UK and US have prompted many students to seek newer, more welcoming destinations including Canada, Europe and Singapore.
"New Zealand attracted a large number of Indian students this year. Countries such as Canada will become increasingly popular. Australia, with its new visa norms, is all set to make a comeback," said Ravi Lochan Singh, managing director of the educational consultancy Global Reach.
He was referring to a 77% drop in the number of Indian students in Australia in 2010 compared to the year before.
"Although European destinations will not be a threat [to traditional destinations] they are innovating to become more international," added Singh.
Indian students spend Rs5.9 billion (US$113.5 million) annually on studying abroad, more than twice the amount allotted by the country's national budget to higher education.
A big chunk of this money traditionally goes to the US, which hosts more than 100,000 Indian students, the UK and Australia. The drop-off of Indian students in the UK is marked, almost 10% down on previous years.
Changes in visa policies are a key factor in the search for new destinations. This year the UK scrapped the two-year post-study leave to remain in the UK for new non-EU students. Foreign graduates can stay only if they have highly paid skilled job offers.
"The UK played around with their post-study work regulations and all indications are that September  and Spring [January 2012] intakes will show a huge decline in student numbers from India," said Singh.
The post-study work visa has been popular among self-financing Indian students who try to recover the cost of their degree by working after their course is over. Few Indian students get help with bursaries or scholarships from the Indian or the British governments.
By contrast, Australia announced new student visa regulations from November this year after a huge slump in the number of Indian students following racist attacks on Indians in 2009. A government clampdown on dubious institutions and visa changes also deterred prospective students.
Under its new regulation, international students who graduate with a bachelor or masters degree after studying for at least two years in Australia will be able to work in the country for two years after graduation. Those with research masters degrees can remain for three years' post-study work, with four years for PhD students.
"The new regulation has the potential of attracting Indian students back to Australian universities. It will also act as an alternative to British universities when cost of education remains the same," said Harmeet Pental, regional director of South Asia for IDP Education.
While the UK tightens its visa rules, countries like Germany are poised to fill the gap.
"English-speaking countries will continue to remain popular with Indian students. But unless student visa norms become more flexible and the economic situation improves in countries like the US and UK, students will look for greener pastures," said Singh.
After completing a degree in Germany, a student can stay for up to a year to look for a job. "The residence permit issued for studying can be converted into a residence permit for employment and can be issued for up to five years," said Christiane Schlottmann, director of the German Academic Exchange Service's (DAAD) regional office in New Delhi.
With tuition fee subsidies in Germany, and government stipends for around one in five Indian students, the cost is much lower than for the US or UK.
The European Union's Erasmus Mundus programme, launched in 2004, has helped 2,000 Indian students study in institutions in Europe including in Germany, France and Spain.
"Language might be a barrier for several students coming to Europe. But staying in a country to study is the best way to pick up a new language," Sakshi Talwar, an Erasmus Mundus scholar, pointed out.
US versus Canada
US universities may still host the largest number of Indian students globally. But the US reputation has taken a beating after high-profile incidents of fraudulent universities left Indian students stranded.
In January 2011, Tri Valley University in California was charged with immigration fraud by the US authorities and closed down, leaving hundreds of Indian students facing deportation. In July, US authorities raided the University of North Virginia after alleged visa fraud.
Although there are also reports of dubious private diploma-granting colleges in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, there is more transparency about bogus universities than in the US where "there is no single accrediting body", said Singh of Global Reach.
The US is still popular with Indian students. "But there will be a decrease in numbers because not everybody will get admission in Ivy League colleges. The second and third tier colleges in the US may be better than most of ours, but Indian employers are sceptical about lesser-known institutions, especially after the cases of fraudulent institutions came to light," said Dhiraj Mathur, executive director of education at PriceWaterhouseCoopers India.
Meanwhile, the slowdown in the US economy and the lack of employment opportunities is giving Canada an edge over America.
"The Canadian 'Experience Class' visa programme and post-study work permits has tipped the scale in favour of Canada. It will not only give me a chance to study in the country but also work long-term. Chances of a permanent resident status are also high," said student Mrinal Patwardhan, who joined McGill University in Montreal this year.
Canadian universities have also been pro-active in attracting Indian students. The country issued 12,000 study permits in India in 2010 compared to 3,152 in 2008. This year also saw eight Canadian universities come together to announce funding for a series of India-specific initiatives valued at over $4 million, including the new Globalink Canada-India Graduate Fellowship, which will provide up to 51 scholarships.
Niki Mohapatra, an MBA student at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said she preferred Canada to the US in part because of the cost. "Fees work out at almost double [Canadian business school fees] in the US. Besides, living expenses are higher in the US," she said.
Closer to home, Indian students are looking at Singapore as a higher education destination, according to education consultants in India, who say the numbers are rising year on year. Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore are popular.
And with reports of an economic downswing in the West, more students are looking to building networks for the future in Asia by attending universities in the region.
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GLOBAL: The future of international student mobility
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AUSTRALIA: Collapse in foreign student numbers
UK: Government eases crackdown on student visas
INDIA: Fears of more fraudulent universities in US
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