Over 186,000 Indian students in US, but growth rate drops

The number of Indian students studying in the United States has nearly doubled in the last five years to more than 186,000, according to Open Doors data published last week. However, the growth rate of 12.3% in 2016-17 was the lowest in three years.

Comprising 17.3% of all international students in America, India is the second top sender of students to the US. China is the top source country, with 350,755 or nearly 33% of all foreign students.

According to Open Doors data from the Institute of International Education or IIE, produced in association with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State, the number of Indian students in the US was 96,754 in 2012-13.

It increased by 6.1% to 102,63 in 2013-14, by 29.4% to 132,888 in 2014-15, by 24.9% to 165,918 in 2015-16, and by 12.3% to 186,267 in 2016-17.
Most Indian students in America – 56.3% – are postgraduates while 11.8% are undergraduates, 1.2% are ‘other’ and a high 30.7% are in optional practical training, gaining career and work experience in the US for up to three years before returning home.

Deputy Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in India, Karl M Adam, said: “We are always excited to see our two countries coming closer together in the best way possible. We strongly support educational exchanges because of the shared benefits, not just in economic terms, but in our mutual understanding of each other.

“American universities provide unparalleled access to instructors, and provide a wide variety of internship and research opportunities. The American higher education system introduces international students to networks and contacts that provide benefits and advantages over a lifetime,” added Adam.

Concerns about the US

The quality and value of US higher education is recognised worldwide. In India there is a perception among academics that the US continues to be a favourite destination for Indian students. But US President Donald Trump’s attempts to tighten visa norms could lead many to look for alternatives.

“Indian students are now more cautious about going to US institutions,” said Adhir Saxena, a professor of electrical engineering at Rajiv Gandhi Technological University in central India.

“Recently, many incidents have been reported where Indians had to face racial violence or discrimination in America. Parents are particularly concerned about racist attacks against Indians and don’t want their children to go to a place they perceive as unsafe.”
Dr Rajiv Agrawal, assistant professor of medicine at Bhopal’s Gandhi Medical College, agreed that there had been a spurt in attacks on foreigners in the US and hate crimes had increased.

However, he argued, the main anxiety among Indian students was about getting an H-1B visa after obtaining a degree. The H-1B visa allows American employers to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations like information technology.
This is important given that nearly a third of all Indian students in the US are in optional practical training following graduation.

“The recent reports that the US administration would make the H1-B visa requirements stringent could have had a chilling effect on students,” Agrawal maintained.

“Reports said the Trump administration plans to increase the salary requirement for H-1B visas to US$130,000. Only those having high-paying engineering or finance jobs would be in a position to meet this prerequisite.”

In 2015-16, the number of Indian students getting F1 visas for studies in US universities, colleges or schools was reportedly 74,831, but this number declined by 16.43% to 62,537 in 2016-17. Similarly, only 503 got the M1 (technical and vocational) visa, a 17.41% decline.

Sudhir Tandon, an English literature lecturer at Lucknow University in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, agreed that proposed changes in US immigration policy were problematic.

“Trump’s attempts to tighten visa norms are deterring Indian students. They believe they have an uncertain future after completing graduation in America as they are not sure of getting an H-1B visa.”

“Trump has softened his stance on H1-B and indicated he may ease restrictions on this visa. But students aren’t convinced yet,” said Tandon. “Fears about likely changes to visa policies will not go quickly. Students don’t want to take the risk. They are wary of making huge investments in higher studies in America as uncertainty persists about job opportunities.”

Mithlesh Pandey, an education consultant, said international students were beginning to shun the US because of the anti-immigrant policies of Donald Trump. “While Australia, the UK and Canada continue to lure Indian students with better prospects, America will be the loser.”

More positive views

But not all agree that America’s popularity as a student destination is on the decline.

Meenakshi Satpathy, an associate professor of business management at Lucknow University, is not convinced that there has been a sudden or drastic change in the opinions of Indians about the US as a place to study.

“It is true that students are looking at other options but the US continues to remain an attractive destination for them, because they believe they can succeed there. US institutions are believed to be among the best in the world and they offer high quality and varied courses. They have high global ranking and offer the best facilities and job prospects,” she argued.

Indian universities were not only poorly ranked but also had very little intake capacity, and the country’s job market was “very tough”, which was why Indians preferred foreign institutions.

“But the US administration will have to ensure there is no discrimination against foreigners, particularly Indians. Countries like Canada, Australia and the UK are fast emerging as preferred destinations for Indian students.”

Poonam Jain prepares students for the International English Language Testing System, the standardised English language proficiency test that is accepted by universities in English-speaking countries such as the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

He accepts that there is some fear and uncertainty about changes in America’s visa policies, but does not believe that the statistics are very discouraging. Although the rate of increase in Indian students opting to study in America had declined compared to the two previous years, there was still 12.3% growth. “You cannot jump to a conclusion,” said Poonam.