Indian students want international recognition, not UK working visas

The drop in Indian students in the UK is more than a policy issue, says Richard Everitt – universities must wise up

Working in India as I do, the thing that strikes me most about students I talk to is their drive, dedication and their ambition to succeed. Indian students maintain a difficult balance between young, forward-thinking individualism and observing the more traditional social normsof strict family and generational structures. This is reinforced by many state institutions which are largely out of sync with the volume and needs of young people, especially women.

Within this context, education, especially higher education, represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to secure and achieve personal ambition and transcend the barriers that Indian students perceive hold them back. Overseas education has for a long time been seen as the best opportunity to do this – and the UK is stilll held in high regard.

However, traditional flows of Indian students moving around the world have since 2010 begun to change. Latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) show an alarming 25% reduction of Indian students recruited to the UK. Some groups have blamed the government's reforms to post-study work opportunities, not to mentionrestrictions on part-time work during study.

But it does a gross disservice to both the complex ambitions and motivations of Indian students, and the attractiveness of the UK's higher education sector, to attribute such a big drop solely to the ability to work after study issue. In autumn 2013, the British Council sought to analyse what is causing such big shifts in Indian student mobility. Our research of more than 10,000 Indian students' views revealed a much more significant change in their decision-making process.

Of those surveyed, 65% of students indicated that high cost was the greatest deterrent to studying overseas. Second to this was the lack of scholarship opportunities (45%) followed by difficulties getting a visa (44%) and not having the opportunity to work (34%).

Financial concerns come as no real surprise given the recent depreciation of the rupee – the real cost of studying overseas (between 2011-13) in the US, Australia and UK has increased on average US $10,000 per year. Of the big study destinations, only Germany has managed to restrict rising costs to under $2,000.

If cost is the biggest decision-making factor, what are perceptions around the value of studying overseas? It's easy to assume that return on investment (ROI) should be solely measured by financial return. The research showed that Indian students considered value with far more nuance. Yes, 27% did equate ROI to securing a well-paid job after graduation. But 20% also indicated they believed the value of their investment was best returned by becoming an expert in their chosen field of study, and 15% defined ROI as global employers recognising their qualifications.

Getting a good job is a high priority, but Indian students very clearly view their employment status with a wider perspective outside their traditional Indian setting – they seek global acknowledgement.

So Indian students want recognition on a global platform, and feel the only way they can achieve this is via top quality education – 61% consider this the most important factor when selecting a study destination. In this context, what does quality mean? Our research found that the three most important aspects of quality for Indian students were: the higher education institution and its reputation; the course, its content and who is teaching it; and the value added to their experience. Skills for future employment were identified as a necessary part of this added value, something that may placate the Indian employers who complain that recent graduates return with the academic knowledge and qualification but not the career-ready skills.

This means there will always be a proportion of Indian students that seek overseas education. For too long, however, UK institutions have failed to recognise the wider context and rationale in which Indian students choose to study abroad. It is incorrect to attribute the recent fall in UK applications simply to a change in government visa policy and misplaced rhetoric – the "horrible, negative effect" cited by the University of East Anglia's Edward Acton in the wake of Hesa's figures.

The opportunities for UK institutions to recruit ambitious students are still there, but given how discerning those students are, the most successful institutions will be those who recognise that young Indians are thinking globally, and devise a recruitment strategy that reflects that.

This strategy will be characterised by new partnerships that find career entry points and pathways for students with top international businesses, with opportunities to work before or while they study, flexible learning options merging virtual and face-to-face learning, and new global networks for professional development for alumni.

Creating these conditions will require a genuine leap of faith from the UK government, industry and the higher education sector to co-operate and a new wave of commitment between all UK stakeholders on the ground in India to support and communicate with our universities.

Richard Everitt is director of education at British Council, India – follow it on Twitter @inBritish

Source: TheGuardian