Indian students rethink study abroad plans due to COVID-19

Indian students are changing or delaying their plans to study abroad this year due to coronavirus disruptions and are closely monitoring the pandemic situation in the most popular destinations like the United States, Britain, Canada and in Europe before making up their minds.

India ordered schools and universities to be closed from 16 March just before a countrywide lockdown was imposed on 23 March and extended several times. The latest extension is due to end on 31 May.

India has had 152,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases – a third of them in Maharashtra state whose capital is Mumbai – and some 4,337 deaths as of 27 May.

Already many students have abandoned plans to study overseas, with exams and language tests suspended, the lockdowns making it difficult to complete paperwork and no clarity about how long travel bans will be in place, making it uncertain if they will be able to go abroad at all.

Changing quarantine stipulations overseas have added to their anxiety as they also monitor the current pandemic situation in countries.

Others said they feared going to foreign countries, following several reports of how Indian students were stranded, some of them without accommodation or food as universities overseas closed.

A change in student behaviour was visible, said Maria Mathai, director of MM Advisory Services. “By this time of the year, students are usually busy with visa applications and confirmations, but this year students are still assessing their options.”

Many will still go ahead, change their destination country or postpone their plans by a semester or a year, education consultants said. However, it is unclear how the handling of the pandemic in the popular study abroad countries will influence their decision.

Indian students “are making note of how each country is handling this crisis. Germany and Canada, for example, will see a definite increase in interest from students in the coming years,” Mathai said, referring to countries seen as most successful in handling the pandemic within their borders.

MM Advisory Services was set up in 2009, while its founder, Mathai, has been advising students on study abroad in Canada since 2004.

She said that for those with offers from overseas universities, “interestingly, we have not seen many instances of cancellation of their study abroad plans. Most are talking about delaying their study abroad plans by a year or so”.

“Some students are having financial issues. It is an unfortunate reality of the current times,” she added.

Choice of country ‘may change’

“The choice of the country may see a change due to the pandemic,” said Vivek Jain, chief business officer at the education consultancy Shiksha, but he noted that a survey carried out by Shiksha and released earlier this month “shows handling coronavirus efficiently did not make much of an impact on whether to choose that country or not; rather it’s the career prospects that influenced the choice.”

A Shiksha survey of Indian students’ study abroad intentions carried out in late April “tells us that students with Australia as their first choice are most likely to change – 69% of students – and those who chose the UK are least likely – 25% of students – to change their study abroad plans,” Jain said.

The UK has reinstated its two-year post-study work visa from the 2020-21 intake of students to UK universities, allowing them to switch to a work visa after graduation if they find a job, according to the visa’s requirements. The UK closed its previous post-study work scheme in 2012, leading to a big decline in student numbers from India.

A British Council survey carried out in late April found that 43% of student respondents in India were not at all likely to cancel their plans. But many were still undecided, with only 5% saying they had already delayed or cancelled their plans. Around 38% said they were likely or somewhat likely to cancel or delay their plans.

“We cannot overlook the fact that the proportion of them who are likely or somewhat likely to delay or cancel is not small,” said the British Council’s Matt Durnin, adding: “It’s too soon to say how students will respond, but it will become clear over the next two months.”

Economic clouds

Mathai said that among the reasons for the delay in making decisions about study abroad was whether by September this year “the university is going to offer online delivery or will open for physical enrolment. The second factor is related to their ability to get a visa in time and be able to actually travel abroad to the university.”

“The visa process is definitely impacted by the lockdown and international travel restrictions. Applying for a visa is a detailed process requiring extensive documentation about education, financials and medical clearances. The lockdown conditions have made these tasks difficult to carry out, so students are not in a position to submit their visa applications with all the required documentation,” she said.

She noted that another major factor was that India’s high school leaving examinations were postponed “so students cannot present their final results” in their applications to overseas universities.

While visa regimes are important, the dire economic situation caused by pandemic lockdowns has clouded employment prospects for students who would normally work while studying or stay on to gain experience while on post-study work visas, education consultants say.

Avneesh Sharma, who graduated in engineering from the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan state, said: “I was planning to go to Australia for a masters degree but abandoned the idea given the grim situation in that country.” But he admitted that his parents and family members want him to stay closer to home.

“I’m not sure whether I’ll get a job after graduation given the current situation as the economic activities have come to a near standstill in most of the countries. The economic slowdown is inevitable once the lockdown is lifted and reports continue to pour in from all over the globe about rising unemployment and job losses due to the virus,” he noted.

Delays rather than cancellations

“More clarity will emerge in a few weeks as more universities reveal their September plans. Many are likely to choose the online September session option, especially undergraduates. If the universities do a reasonable job of it, they will continue because they do understand that this is the best possible situation.

“Others are definitely exploring options with Indian institutions with internationally accredited programmes, so that they can transfer abroad after a year or two in India,” Mathai said.

Some universities overseas have announced plans to conduct classes online, but students are unsure about the usefulness of online classes.

Besides gaining academic knowledge they also want to communicate with teachers, colleagues, study in libraries, take part in various extracurricular activities on campus and experience other aspects that make studying abroad an attractive option.

Sumeet Jain, co-founder of Yocket, a Delhi-based study abroad consultant, said if overseas universities didn’t come out with a clear plan, it would be difficult for students to decide.

‘Huge dropout’ if classes online only

He predicted a “huge dropout” of students changing their plans if fees are kept the same while classes are only offered online.

“Students won’t pay the same amount for online classes. They [universities] need to reduce the fees for online classes,” Jain told University World News. “Students are uncertain of their own finances; they are worried. Many are not getting loans for online classes.”

However, he said students were likely to defer their plans for only a term. “Some might defer for a year but not longer than that. They have not dropped their plans of studying abroad.”

The decision to go abroad or not is also not influenced by the handling of coronavirus by particular countries. “This is related to their career and education. They look at where those prospects are good,” Yocket’s Jain added.

Shiskha’s recent survey on the impact of coronavirus on study plans of Indian students found that 41% of students who responded ‘strongly confirmed’ that they intended to go abroad for studies anyway. Only 11% are considering cancelling their plans.

Overall, 72% of respondents are still planning to study abroad in 2020. Only 27% of students said they planned to defer to 2021. Students who have already paid the fees are very eager to go, the consultancy noted, and students making plans for the next session continue to be willing to go.

Concerns over travel, visas and accommodation will depend on how the situation evolves and on support from the government, according to Shiksha.