Indian students weigh up US study in Trump era

With United States President Donald Trump’s policy of cutting immigration and tightening visa norms yet to fully kick in, current uncertainty over US policies is already having an impact on Indian students seeking admission to US universities, according to private education consultants in India handling overseas applications.

“There is a lot of hue and cry with no clarity, and this is affecting prospective students,” says Priyanka Bhargava who runs XL Pathfinders, a New Delhi-based study abroad consultancy, referring to reports from the US about stricter policies on visas and the administration’s stated aim to halve immigration levels.

What could be crucial for Indian students, says Bhargava, is the fate of the US one-year post-study work permit.

Post-study work permits have long been a way for international students to stay on and find a decent job to gain work experience, pay off loans and pave the way for immigration. When the United Kingdom scrapped post-study work permits for international students in 2012, the number of students from India enrolling in UK universities slid by almost 30% in the following years.

The US has been the top destination for Indian students, taking just over half of all Indian students studying overseas each year. But Trump’s new policy would bar those earning less than US$130,000 per year from staying on after graduating.

“Indian students are a mixed crowd and not all of them have the calibre to meet the $130,000 salary criterion,” says Bhargava.

Students applying for science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM subjects, who form three-quarters of Indian students graduating from US colleges, can stay on up to three years in the US if undergoing optional practical training or OPT. But there could be cuts here as well, which is causing concern.

Popular destination

While the US is popular, countries offering post-study work visas are likely to gain ground as US visa rules are tightened, agents say.

In 2014 the US took in 97,613 of the total of 181,872 Indian students who travelled abroad on study visas. The US was followed as favoured destination by Australia with 25,562, the UK with 19,604 and Canada with 13,626.

Australia offers a two-year post-study permit to those graduating from its universities and Canada offers up to three-years. Nonetheless, Bhargava said “there are other factors for students to weigh up such as the fact that Australia could be picky, and the cost of living can be prohibitively expensive for low-budget students”.

Perceptions that the US is no longer welcoming to foreign students could also affect some applications from India with Muslim students most concerned, according to anecdotal evidence since Trump’s 27 January executive order which caused days of chaos at US airports.

The executive order banning visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, if reinstated, could result in US colleges and universities losing up to US$700 million annually, according to estimates released by College Factual, a higher education research firm. The ban was stayed by a court but moves are underway to reintroduce it in a different form.

“It is, after all, a big decision for students and their parents to make,” says Vinita Rai, manager at Mrinal Singh and Prem Kapur, another firm of education agents in New Delhi. “While the reputation of US universities is high there are now worries around racialism thanks to widely publicised instances in the media.”

Overall reduction in numbers expected

As a result of the uncertainties, education agents in India expect an overall contraction in the number of Indian students willing to pay large sums of money to go to the US.

In recent years, the number of Indian students enrolled in US institutions has been rising. "The number of F (academic) and M (vocational) students from India studying in the US grew from 148,360 in March 2015 to 194,438 in March 2016, an increase of 31.1%," says a quarterly report by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program of the US government.

However the number of Indian students heading for Canada also grew by 40% between 2013 and 2015 due to a more liberal post-study visa regime.

Bhargava says that despite the apprehensions of students and their families, she does not foresee an appreciable change in the flow of Indian students to the US, “going by the mass emails sent by university authorities to students in the middle of applications, that Trump’s policies will not affect them”.

Several US universities, including Duke University in North Carolina and the University of Michigan have emailed prospective students to say they are welcome to their institutions, regardless of Trump administration statements.

A number of other countries are trying to lure Indian students who might have otherwise gone to the US, with post-study visas. These include New Zealand with a one-year post-study option, Germany with an 18-month post-study permit, France with a two-year post-study visa for those graduating from French business and engineering schools, and Ireland with a two-year post-study visa.