Videos of stranded Indian students in Ukraine pleading the Narendra Modi government to rescue them from the Russian bombs and flying rockets have been dropping on social media thick and fast ever since Russia invaded the Eastern European nation on 24 February. One Indian student is confirmed dead while another is under treatment after getting shot multiple times while trying to escape from the capital Kyiv. Thousands of students are still in Ukraine even as ministers and BJP leaders have landed in Romania and other neighbouring countries to oversee the evacuation plan.
Back home in India, the trouble facing the students has once again ignited the debate — on the Indian education system and the need for students to travel abroad for it, especially to study medicine. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a webinar on budget announcements, commented on how “our children today are going to small countries for study”, while urging the private sector to enter the field and help stop student outflow. So why do students go?
“The universities in India that are of good quality are very few and far in between. The ones that are available are very difficult to get into,” says former Delhi University vice chancellor Dinesh Singh.
Caught in the middle of a life-and-death crisis in a foreign country and having put the spotlight on the education system at home that many say is simply unaffordable, Indian students is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
Students in numbers
In its latest report on ‘Higher Education Abroad’, consulting firm Redseer estimates that close to 20 lakh Indian students would be studying abroad by 2024. The report found that this number is constantly on the rise.
“Our research shows that currently 7,70,000 Indian students are studying abroad from 4,40,000 in 2016 which is a 20 percent growth. On the other hand, the growth in the domestic region has been merely 3 percent when compared to the demand for education abroad,” the report found.
The All India Higher Education Survey (AISHE) also proves this. In 2016-17, the number of students enrolled in higher education was 35.7 million, which increased to only 38.5 million in 2019-20.
Indian students going abroad to study is not a new phenomenon. For decades now, lack of quality education institutes in India and demand-supply gap has been forcing many families to send their children abroad. The spotlight, however, has turned on these students with two recent events — the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine.
On both occasions, as stranded students called for help (then from China, now from Ukraine), questions were raised as to why they needed to go in the first place. ‘Why can’t they study in India?’
The shift in destination
In the 1990s, and even earlier, most students from India went to English-speaking countries such as the US, the UK, and Canada. Australia is a fairly new destination, becoming popular only in the last 15 years or so. Back then, wealthy families sent their children abroad for education because it was considered a status symbol. The Ivy League universities were a rage and a degree from one of these universities stood your CV out no matter where you went looking for a job. Students from middle-class families could go abroad only if they managed a scholarship.
The scenario, however, has changed now because of two reasons — international education has become more affordable with loans and the number of destinations is constantly expanding, with various non-English speaking countries in Europe and Middle East aggressively targeting potential students.
So, why a “small country” like Ukraine?
“The reason for those going to Russia, Ukraine and China is very simple — they are all going because of the demand and supply gap for medical seats. They want to get a better degree in a university abroad and then also get a return on their investment by earning over there,” says Furqan Qamar, former secretary general of Association of Indian Universities, who has also served as the vice chancellor of University of Rajasthan and Central University of Himachal Pradesh.
There are only about 80,000 medical seats across private and public institutions in India and nearly seven lakh students clear the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) annually.
Affordability is another reason why students have shifted to smaller countries. To studying medicine in the US, a student will have to easily shell out between Rs 18 lakh and Rs 30 lakh annually. In the UK, a good medical school like University of Leicester charges upto £23,000 (more than Rs 23 lakh) for the first two years for international students.
On the other hand, a medical degree in countries like Ukraine, China, Russia, Georgia among others would cost anywhere between Rs 17 lakh to Rs 45 lakh for the entire course with similar facilities, making them a choice destination for Indian students.
Courses are another factor
While there has been a tremendous growth in the quality of engineering education in India over the years, medical education hasn’t kept pace. There are currently over 23 lakh seats across engineering colleges in India, excluding the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and National Institutes of Technology (NITs). This is not the case with medical education and other specialised areas like management, pharmacy, architecture. The number of management seats have stood somewhere between 3 to 4 lakh over the last five years.
In fact, most of the universities in India offer general programmes – B.Com, B.Sc and B.A. As per the AISHE data from 2019-20 – there are 1,043 universities in India. Of these, 522 are general, 177 technical, 63 agriculture and allied, 66 medical, 23 law, 12 Sanskrit and 11 language universities. The other 145 universities fall in ‘other categories’ while no information is available for the remaining 24.
“I have always been interested in sports management but no university in India offers a relevant degree and hence I had to look for options abroad,” says Manas Gangwani, who is pursuing his master’s in sports management from a university in Australia.
Apart from this, foreign universities offer courses with a fair amount of variety.
“We offer courses like Maths Hons and Sanskrit Hons, where we teach just the basics of a subject. The employability of the student goes down because they do not have any specific skill. Hence, those who can afford, either go for a Masters or pursue an undergraduate degree from abroad,” Dinesh Singh said.
Siddhant Shukla, who is enrolled for an MBA in Canada, also feels that an Indian university could not have offered him what the Canadian university is offering. “I want to settle in Canada after my MBA. I want a better quality life, better pay for the hard work that I’m putting in and I think I would never have been rewarded accordingly in India.”
One can blame the students and their parents for shunning Indian universities, but unless the education system in India is tailored to the needs of students, they will continue to fly abroad. Indian institutes need to start providing students with more options for professional courses including technical, medical and others. A beginning has been made with the new National Education Policy 2020 focusing on skill-based education, but it is too soon to tell if it can stop Indian students from going abroad.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)