With the falling rupee, studying abroad means a huge financial burden for many. Neither does the higher education scenario in India present a rosy picture.
In September 2011 when I went to the U.K. for a graduate degree, 1 GBP was equal to Rs. 76.5. In late August this year, the GBP breached the 100-Rupee mark for the first time, an increase of approximately 30 per cent. The Rupee has nose-dived against many international currencies including the Euro and the U.S. Dollar. For most of the 4,00,000 Indian students who set out to study abroad every year, the drop in the Rupee sounds the death knell to such ambitions.
With the current exchange rates, a one-year graduate degree in the U.K. can easily set one back by Rs. 30 lakh. Though the tuition fees and living expenses are cheaper in the U.S., students end up spending close to the same amount as most graduate degrees there are two-year programmes. This is not a small amount. Most students who study abroad do so after pooling in their personal resources and taking student loans. A family can easily spend a large chunk of their life-savings to send their son or daughter abroad for a year.
Loans and scholarships
Why are so many families forced to dip into their savings for something as vital as higher education?
Educational loans are expensive. Almost all loans are offered by private sector banks, none of which have interest rates below 10 per cent. The situation is vastly different in many other countries. Countries such as the U.S., Germany, Canada and China, have state-subsidised student loans and grants. Several of these countries have adopted a repayment scheme which is based on the income generated by the student. The U.K., for example, has an income-contingent repayment scheme where above a threshold, the repayment is fixed based on the income of the student after graduation.
In addition to loans, government funds that cover part of full tuition fees are also available for students in graduate programmes in several countries. European countries such as Spain, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Cyprus have specific central or state-based grants for students. In Spain, the Banco Satander offers generous funds for students to study abroad. The U.S. is another country which has multiple scholarships. In addition to well-known scholarships such as the Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchel and Churchill scholarships, there are several smaller public and private scholarships which fund students for specific areas of study. An interesting example is the private-public collaborative, One Hundred Thousand Strong Educational Exchange Initiatives, which aims to send students from the U.S. to study in China and also invites students from China to the U.S. many of whom are offered partially-funded scholarships. Closer home, the Government of China offers funding to 18,000 students (undergraduate and graduate) to study abroad through the China Scholarship Council (http://thepienews.com/news/
The situation in India is, however, entirely different. There are three scholarships in India which offer full funding for students going abroad, none of which is funded by the Government: The Rhodes, The Inlaks and The Commonwealth scholarships. The Rhodes scholarship, which is specifically for students studying in the University of Oxford, selects up to six scholars a year. There are 11 Rhodes scholarships for students from Canada, which has a population of around 34 million; 32 scholarships for the U.S. (population of 314 million); and nine scholarships for Australia (population of around 22 million). The population of India is close to 1.3 billion in 2013. The math is telling.
The Inlaks and the Commonwealth offer full funding to a few more students. The Inlaks is open to students who wish to pursue their education in any country, but the Commonwealth scholarship has country-specific funding, with most students opting to study in the U.K. Together, at best some 70 students get full funding from these scholarships. .
There are a handful of other scholarships which offer partial funding either as grants or as interest free loans. One of the oldest is the Narotam Sekhsaria scholarship which offers an interest-free loan of up to Rs. 15 lakhs. Though they do not have a cap on the number of scholars selected, they usually select around 20 scholars each academic year. The selection criteria is demanding, only a fraction of those interviewed get selected. In addition, a few education-based organisations offer limited scholarships as well. The best known of these are the ETS-TOEFL scholarship and the IELTS scholarship. These are partially funded scholarships usually offering Rs. 2-4 lakhs to a handful of students. For many students, with the rise in both the exchange rates and the tuition fees, a grant of Rs. 2-4 lakhs is a drop in the ocean. There are few universities abroad which offer other sources of funding. Some of them are specifically aimed at students from developing countries, and some like the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust scholarships are for students from the Commonwealth of Nations. Indian students have an edge in these scholarships. However, the majority of them are not geographically limited, and few Indians if any get selected at all. This year, for example, there were no Indians in the list of 50 international Gates Cambridge Scholars-elect. Countries such as the U.S. and Germany have decreased the total number of funds available for students after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Professors are reluctant to take in international students as they would not be eligible for state funds. Even prominent universities such as MIT and The Johns Hopkins University advise international students to search for their own funds for graduate programmes. Some, like the University of California system, have increased the tuition fees to make up for the lack of funds.
Why study abroad?
Higher education in India is neither rigorous nor flexible enough to compete with institutions abroad. The rankings are telling. In the recent Academic Rankings of World Universities, only one Indian university – The Indian Institute of Science (ranked in the 300-400 slot) – made it to the list.
Good postgraduate education is a combination of many factors including excellent faculty and infrastructure, rigorous and flexible academic programmes and a general intellectual spirit of the university. In India, it is absolutely rare to find a combination of all three. Very few universities offer flexible and innovative combinations of courses, and students feel that the curricula offered at most universities do not match international standards.
Barring a few, college libraries are poorly equipped and access to online journals is limited. Days turn into weeks in research labs to procure chemicals and other miscellany. Stipends in several universities are unduly delayed. Additionally, accommodation for students in most colleges is substandard with limited facilities. Colleges in India have anachronistic rules. Men and women aren’t allowed to visit each other at hostels, and women and sometimes men have curfew timings even though almost all graduate students are above 21 years of age.
Stuck between the rising price of education, the falling Rupee and unsatisfactory higher education in India, students are increasingly deferring applying abroad. Many students opt to work for a few years to gain experience with the hope of getting funding. But with the small number of scholarships available for higher education, funding is not certain. For those who go abroad after taking a loan, post-education options are limited with the need to repay the loan as quickly as possible. Many continue to work abroad or opt for better paying jobs outside their stream of education to repay their debts. With a record number of young Indians poised to enter the workforce in the next decade it is imperative to greatly increase and improve funding options for higher education.
The writer is a Commonwealth Scholar and a graduate student at the University of Cambridge.