By VIR SINGH
NEW DELHI – Parth Vaishnav can’t wait to graduate, but he doesn’t think very much of the bachelor’s degree he will receive from the University of Mumbai next summer. And he believes employers won’t value it, either.
Indian students listened to President Obama at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai in November. More Indians are looking abroad for educational opportunities.
He is applying to engineering schools in the United States, which he has been told offer the flexibility, diverse courses and hands-on experience he seeks.
“Basically, all of us in my class, we were pretty disappointed with our systems,” Mr. Vaishnav said. “In the last three years, we have learned absolutely nothing. Everything was pretty theoretical. Courses in the U.S. offer practical experience. In India, as far as the syllabus goes, you have absolutely no flexibility.”
Mr. Vaishnav is among a rising number of students in India’s rapidly expanding younger population who want, and can pay for, a better education. Yet they know that in a country where thousands apply for each spot at a handful of top universities, the chances of this happening are remote. These students say a good foreign degree will get them a better job and a better life. And if the potential return on investment appears worthwhile, they will put their money on it.
In interviews with students around India recently, most said they wanted to strengthen their credentials outside of the country and voiced hope for growth in India after returning. They also spoke of the usual fears and concerns of students headed overseas.
“One thing that is common across students going to any country is, ‘Look, I am making this investment, what are my returns?”‘ said Ruchika Castelino, the head of Indian operations of Study Overseas, a company that advises students. “That’s such a huge question that students have. Then everything else follows: ‘Where shall I go, what is the kind of course, job placements, etc.’ “
She estimates that the number of Indian students going overseas annually has doubled in the past six years, reaching more than 200,000.
For those students who have made the decision to head overseas, several issues must be addressed. For Shivanika Gyani, finding a way to pay more than $150,000 for a two-year master’s in business administration is not the biggest challenge. The first hurdle, she said, is getting into a top American business school, which means scoring well on the Graduate Management Admission Test, or G.M.A.T.
“For the U.S., I need to break into the 700s to get in to a good school,” she said, referring to a grading system in which 800 is the maximum. “These days I don’t socialize at all, and I talk to people only if they want to discuss G.M.A.T. and business schools.”
Why did she choose the United States? “If I go to America, there is more chance of my network being more global because more people from around the world go to America,” said Ms. Gyani, 29, who worked at a head-hunting company in Mumbai after college.
She has looked at some programs in Europe, but feels it is “not really the best place to go right now, because employment opportunities are limited and you have to learn the language if you want to work.” The location and courses offered by the London Business School are attractive, but Ms. Gyani has one big problem with Britain: “The weather depresses me. It’s a huge factor. I had a long chat with someone. He said: ‘Keep weather as a consideration. Your cost of living will go up in a cold place.”‘
Shivam Arora, a high school senior in Mumbai, has the same problem when he considers living in Canada. Even though he has been told that the country offers scholarships to students like him who are enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, he is planning to apply to Canadian colleges mainly “as a backup.”
For students where money is more of an issue, they cannot be choosy. For many of them, one-year programs at British universities are a big draw. Vishal Gill, a supply-chain specialist at Tata Motors, said a two-year business degree at a well-regarded Indian institution costs about $34,800. For the same money, or less, if he considers the cost of a yearlong program at the Indian School of Business, he can spend a year studying at a good British university. And he can choose courses that focus on his specialization. “Why not go abroad, compete on a global platform and pay less?” he said.
After completing his degree, Mr. Gill would also like to work overseas. He is familiar with Singapore because one of his employer’s suppliers is there. “It is a country where all of the big corporates have situated,” he said. “No racism is there. It is a good place to be in.”
But even if his plans to go overseas don’t work out, he is confident Tata Motors will reward him. “After doing my master’s, they will give me a salary hike,” he said. “For sure.”
That’s what Saurabh Parihar, an electronics engineer, has heard from his cousins who work at global companies in India. He says that in the past 5 to 10 years, raises for workers who return with degrees earned overseas have made even conservative families less reluctant to send children abroad. His father, a government employee in the northern town of Jodhpur, will have to get a loan to send him to a year of graduate studies in Britain. But Mr. Parihar is “somewhat confident” that a British degree will allow him to repay the loan.
“All you need is that initial break,” said Deepak Krishnakumar, an engineering student who is applying to doctoral programs in America. “That you get there.” A student at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, he said there were now many more jobs in research and development.
Rajeev Varma, who is earning a master’s degree in organic chemistry in Mumbai, agreed. “The pharma companies in India are coming back like anything,” he said. “It’s booming. Even if there’s a financial crunch, pharma companies are never at a loss.”
He said science students who go overseas get opportunities not widely available in India, like working with researchers from the leading companies in the world.
“If you work with good international labs, you get very good opportunities,” he said. “You get very good exposure.”
“Exposure” is a word that came up in nearly all of the interviews, no matter what a student was studying.
For Mr. Vaishnav, the engineering student in Mumbai, exposure is more than a buzzword. He saw his classmate transform completely after transferring to a Canadian university and benefiting from the academics there.
“He has learned 10 times as much in the last three years, even though he’s a year behind,” he said. As part of his engineering degree, the friend built an electronic drum set and a sprinkler system for farms. “He has enjoyed everything.”