India’s ‘study abroad’ ecosystem is booming | Loan applications see 4x jump post pandemic, and number of international schools too goes up

There is an entire industry of consultants, prep classes and financial services catering to India’s growing appetite for international education

October 13, 2023 02:47 pm | Updated October 16, 2023 05:55 pm IST

A large number of middle and upper middle class families are now opting for a foreign education, bolstered by easy financing options.

A large number of middle and upper middle class families are now opting for a foreign education, bolstered by easy financing options. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Kannan Sundar

Over the past few years, Samar* has worked with a large cross-section of students — from children of NRIs to business scions to star kids — all wanting the same thing: gaining admission to some of the best universities in the world. As a counsellor with a top educational consultancy in New Delhi, it’s his job to get them there.

The groundwork begins early, often at Class VIII, when counsellors help students build a substantial portfolio that includes not just academics but extra-curricular activities, internships, fundraisers and community service projects with NGOs. “Sometimes, we go as far as to write the emails that they send their teachers asking for reference letters. Or we rewrite their college application essay in the guise of editing,” says Samar. From building their profiles to helping with university applications to loan referrals, the scope of services covered by these educational consultancies is mind-boggling.

Not surprising then that most students adopt a hands-off approach once a consultant enters the picture; it’s the parents who are “extremely hands-on”, ensuring they get the “bang for their buck”, says Samar, and the buck is substantial at a cumulative ₹12 lakh-₹14 lakh per year.

There are roughly 1.3 million Indian students studying abroad in various courses for the year 2022. 

There are roughly 1.3 million Indian students studying abroad in various courses for the year 2022.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images

International education, it seems, is the latest cash cow in India. In recent years, it has spawned an entire industry of consultants, prep classes and tuitions, and financial services catering to sending students abroad. The ecosystem is self-referential, its extant elements feeding off of each other. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, there are approximately 1.3 million Indian students studying abroad in various courses for the year 2022, with the U.S. being the most preferred destination.

Top 5 countries for Indian students (in 2022)
U.S. (1,90,512 students)
Canada (1,85,955)
U.K. (1,32,709)
Australia (59,044)
Germany (20,684)
Tuition fee per annum (approx.)
U.S. ₹40 lakh
Canada ₹19 lakh
U.K. ₹10 lakh
Australia ₹10 lakh
Germany ₹2.5 lakh
No. of Indian students going abroad
2017: 4,54,009
2020: 2,59,655
2022: 7,50,365
Educational counsellor and mentor Viral Doshi.

Educational counsellor and mentor Viral Doshi.

The ecosystem also includes people like Viral Doshi, a prominent Mumbai counsellor and mentor who has been dubbed the ‘Harvard whisperer.’ Doshi hand-holds students right from Class IX to the time they get into college, sometimes going even further and mentoring them through their college years.

He starts with a psychometric test, which hedges the child’s aptitude, interests and accordingly, prescribes a field of study. This is followed by detailed guidance on what competitions to participate in and what summer schools to go to, all with the ultimate aim of getting into top universities for that field. “It’s all about strategy. Hundreds of thousands of people are applying to Ivy League universities each year. How do you ensure you rise above them? That’s where we guide students on how to apply strategically,” says Doshi.

The number of students graduating with an IB diploma has increased from 723 in 2006 to 5,370 in 2022.

The number of students graduating with an IB diploma has increased from 723 in 2006 to 5,370 in 2022. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Kannan Sundar

Increasingly, for parents looking to send their children abroad, often the first step is to enrol their wards in international schools with branches in India or premier institutions offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Cambridge (IGCSE) curriculums. The number of IB schools has risen from around 30 in the early 2000s to 223 in 2023. Simultaneously, the number of students graduating with an IB diploma has increased from 723 in 2006 to 5,370 in 2022. It is unclear yet what this means for the country or for the quality of education on offer today, but the trend points to the global aspirations of India’s growing population.

World-class facilities

Priyankar Bhikshu first came across Harrow International School via a hoarding on Airport Road in Bengaluru. The 450-year-old U.K. school chain that counts one Indian and seven British prime ministers among its alumni opened a new branch in the Garden City this year. At the time, Bhikshu’s daughter Shravya, 13, was studying in Class VII at a premier ICSE school in the city. A Kendriya Vidyalaya product himself, Bhikshu believed his daughter had “a very smart brain” but lacked motivation. The hoarding seemed like a sign.

Shravya started at Harrow, and in just two months, Bhikshu says he has seen a transformation. He attributes some of it to the student-teacher ratio — 4:1 as opposed to 40:1 in her previous school — with a majority of the teaching staff coming from abroad. Then there are the after-school co-curriculars (drama, choir, dance); a tutor who, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., helps students with any academic worries; and the customary 9.30 p.m. deadline to turn in all gadgets for residential students.

“In my old CBSE school, I didn’t agree with the way of teaching. Sometimes, I’d go to my teachers with questions, and they’d simply say, this is not in the syllabus. Other times, I would try to have discussions with my friends about things I care about, like the environment, or global warming. But they were just not into it... That’s why I decided to join an international school, where there are so many perspectives, so many people, and you’re actually living with faculty.”Navya DahiyaClass XII student at Mahindra United World College, Pune

For an athletic Shravya, the school’s top-class sports facilities were an added bonus. All this at a price tag of ₹17 lakh per annum, not including boarding fees of ₹3.5 lakh. Bhikshu, who paid tuition fees of ₹12 lakh this year after Shravya got a 40% scholarship, thinks it is a worthy investment, keeping his daughter’s holistic development in mind.

Another foreign school, the U.K.-based Wellington College International, which opened a branch in Pune this year, boasts 75-inch interactive smartboards in classrooms, Surface Pro tablets and iPads for students, two synthetic tennis courts, two squash courts, and a half Olympic-sized swimming pool, among other facilities. “We are currently focusing all our energies on Pune, but our eventual goal in India… extends to developing a number of schools across the country,” says Murray Tod, Wellington’s Head of College.

“My parents enroled me in an international school in Ghatkopar (Mumbai) because they wanted me to go abroad for higher studies. Not only did the IB curriculum give me the freedom to explore, but it also taught me how to use my education in the real world. For instance, in Class XII, I wrote my Extended Essay in Hindi, on the film ‘Oh My God’ and how it depicts superstitions in India. I think I was able to do it because of studying in an international board, there is a balance and space for everything. ”Parth TiwariUndergraduate student at UMass Boston

Easy funding, easy access

While earlier it was mostly the elite who sent their children abroad, a large number of middle and upper middle class families are now opting for a foreign education, bolstered by easy financing from banks and NBFCs (Non-Banking Financial Companies) that have awoken to the potential of study-abroad lending.

Shivani Mani, founding member of Grad Right, an ed-tech platform.

Shivani Mani, founding member of Grad Right, an ed-tech platform.

“One of the biggest stumbling blocks for students going abroad is financing,” says Shivani Mani, founding member of Grad Right, an ed-tech platform that also helps students secure loans. “Students will complete the entire application process, which takes them almost nine months to a year. But what happens when they actually get admission? They have two months to figure out their visa and funding. In the rush, they end up going with the first bank that comes their way, and get loans at really high interest rates.” Grad Right has started a loan-bidding platform, where banks and NBFCs compete with each other to fund students. “So as a student, you’re sitting there, getting bids from three to four different banks, and you can choose the one that best suits you — depending on whether you’re looking for low interest rates, no collateral, or no co-signer,” says Mani.

Since it was launched in 2021, almost 50,000 students have used the platform, and nearly 9,000 have secured loans worth a cumulative $165 million. Of these, 87% of the loanees are from Tier II, III and IV towns, and 23% come from families with an income less than ₹5 lakh per annum. The platform, says Aman Singh, co-founder of Grad Right, is free for students; revenue comes from the banks and colleges that register with it.

Neeraj Saxena, CEO and MD of Auxilo, an NBFC that specialises in education finance.

Neeraj Saxena, CEO and MD of Auxilo, an NBFC that specialises in education finance.

One of the registered bidders on Grad Right is Auxilo, specialising in educational loans. According to Neeraj Saxena, CEO and MD of Auxilo, they fund students based primarily on future potential, with financial background being a secondary, if not negligible, factor. Students with monthly family incomes as little as ₹15,000 have been given loans of almost ₹50 lakh. “The assessment begins with which country and which subject the student has chosen. We do deep research on which countries have requirements in which careers. So, we know that for the U.S., STEM courses are a no-brainer. New Zealand is good for those opting for vocational courses. Then we gauge if a work opportunity is supported by the country’s visa norms. The final factor, of course, is that the course should yield a job that allows the student to earn enough to pay back the loan,” says Saxena.

Auxilo has seen a precipitous rise in applications and loans sanctioned in the past few years: from 4,000 applications and 1,750 loans sanctioned pre-pandemic to 18,500 applications and 8,100 loans sanctioned in 2022-23 — an almost 4x jump. The average sanctioned loan amount for pursuing a Master’s in the U.S., for instance, rose from ₹35 lakh in 2018 to ₹50 lakh in 2023.

Students are referred to these lending companies by educational consultants such as Samar, who, says Saxena, become “sourcing channels” for them — yet another indicator of the vast scope and reach of consultants in today’s international education market.

(*Some names changed on request.)

International schooling: work in progress
In search of the best: The IB syllabus is a rigorous curriculum with continuous research projects and internal assessments, which are demanding not just for students but teachers, too
When Meenu Kakar, parent of 16-year-old Yashica who was born in Saudi Arabia, and studied in Nigeria, Hungary and the U.A.E., recently moved back to Noida, she enrolled her daughter in an IB school. But things were far from smooth. “Yashica would come home and say she didn’t understand what the teachers were talking about. I could see her going downhill, academically and emotionally,” says Kakar.
This is what happens when the curriculum is not taught by IB-trained teachers, she adds. Vaishali Chandgude, a former IGCSE teacher, says, “There are a number of new international schools coming up, and they’re poaching teachers from existing schools. Instead of the positions lying vacant, schools are hiring CBSE teachers to fill the void.”
According to a representative from the IB board, “We collaborate closely with educational authorities and schools to request compliance and provide guidance on the proper authorisation process.” Chandgude observes that when she was teaching, they were trained by someone who came from the Cambridge board. “In a year, we had almost 10 trainings, with regular updates and workshops every year. It was also compulsory for us to do an international teacher trainer diploma.”
Padma Kumar, an IB veteran who has worked as a teacher and student counsellor in international schools since 2000, recently began training CBSE teachers to teach IB. According to her, an IB teacher is not a teacher but a facilitator. “I don’t plan what my kids learn. The kids come and say, I want to learn this, and then I facilitate it,” says Kumar.
She adds that it’s very hard to explain this to CBSE teachers, who have grown up with a top-down approach to learning. “Most of these new teachers are also stuck in a literal mode of thinking, they haven’t perfected the art of abstraction. So suppose I tell a chemistry teacher to introduce more storytelling, she will take it literally, like ‘Once upon a time’.... She doesn’t understand that I’m talking about how to make chemistry a story,” says Kumar.
Three years ago, Kakar shifted Yashica to another international school in Noida, and this time, it worked. Her daughter’s grades picked up, and she was recently invited for a workshop by the Qatar Equestrian Federation. She just started her own art and cultural society too, Kakar says. Next year, Yashica will apply to colleges in the U.K. Her plans include studying art history, learning curating from Sotheby’s and the Smithsonian, and working at the Louvre, things that Kakar admits are Latin to her.
Confusion abounds: Most parents, it appears, are at a loss because they’re not familiar with the curriculum. In the ensuing chaos, it’s the children who slip through the cracks. When Arundhuti Bhattacharya enrolled her son Ishan in an IB school in Noida, she thought she was on the right track. Ishan was interested in the sciences and wished to pursue chemistry in college. But when they began looking at Indian universities such as IIS and IISER, they realised that the IB syllabus would not help Ishan crack the entrance exams. “We attended a seminar by Viral Doshi, the Harvard whisperer, who said an international curriculum was not suited to the Indian system,” says Bhattacharya. After much thought, Bhattacharya shifted her son back to a CBSE school for Class XI and XII. Ishan is now preparing for the JEE and other competitive exams, along with his Boards. “He can go abroad for his Master’s later if he wishes. His IB experience will come in handy then,” she says.

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