More than 750,000 Indian students abroad in 2018

It is no secret that China has been the engine of growth in global student mobility for the better part of two decades now. But that rapid growth has slowed in recent years due to a combination of demographic trends and increasing higher education capacity at home. In fact, somewhere around 2014 India began to outpace China in terms of year-over-year growth. Over the past five years India has become not only the world’s second-largest sending market – after only China – but also one of the fastest-growing sources of outbound students.
 
Newly released data from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs reveals that there were nearly 753,000 Indian students abroad as of July 2018. Recognising that there is likely some rounding in the numbers reported by Indian diplomatic posts, those statistics reveal that roughly three in four (72%) go to five leading destinations: the United States (211,703 as of July 2018), Canada (124,000), Australia (87,115), Saudi Arabia (70,800), and the United Arab Emirates (50,000).
 
In a presentation this week at ICEF Berlin, Soni Khanna, principal consultant with TC Global (formerly The Chopras Group) explained that those very impressive outbound figures derive from even more staggering totals. There are an estimated 88.5 million senior secondary students in India today (that is, those aged 14-to-18 years old) and nearly 35 million in higher education.
 
Going forward, post-secondary enrolments are expected to continue to climb steadily, and the government is investing heavily in the sector this year with new budget allocations, and a three-fold increase in targeted funding to boost select Indian institutions within global ranking schemes.
 
Even with recent and planned expansions, competition to enter quality universities and institutes in India remains fierce. To illustrate, Ms Khanna told the story of her daughter, who graduated secondary school with a 97% average but still struggled to find a place in the university of her choice. “Because of the huge population,” she explained, “the competition is very high. But if she would have applied in a foreign university, I’m sure she would have easily got admission to one of the best colleges – but in India that is the level of competition. Every year, in June, you hear these stories that the admission is closed at 98% or 99%. And where are [all other] students going to go?”
 
As this anecdote suggests, there are many highly qualified secondary graduates in India that will not find a place in a quality university at home. TC Global breaks the resulting demand for study abroad down into two prospect groups: “value maximisers” and “experience seekers”.
 
The first group – value maximisers – are students from middle class families that will most often need to finance their programmes abroad with scholarships or other financial aid, or through educational loans from commercial banks in India. These education loans function similarly to student loan programmes in many other countries in that they carry relatively low interest rates and typically do not require repayment until some interval after the student has graduated and had an opportunity to secure employment.
 
These loan arrangements explain in large part the very keen interest that Indian students and parents have in work opportunities for students during their studies abroad, as well as options for students to stay and work after graduation. And this accounts as well for the popularity of leading destinations for Indian outbound, such as Canada and Australia, where there is a strong employment offer for visiting students.
 
The second group of prospective students – the experience seekers – are those from upper middle class families, and with the means to more readily self-fund their programmes abroad. This cohort is more open to fields of study outside of the STEM and business disciplines that remain the core areas of demand for Indian students otherwise. And they are equally open to relatively new destinations, including Germany for engineering studies, Ireland for technology programmes, and other destinations in Europe (notably Italy and France) and Asia (such as Japan and Korea).
 
The overall outlook then is for the continued strength and growth for Indian outbound. In particular, “the number of undergraduate students going abroad is increasing every year,” says Ms Khanna. “When I started my career, it was 15% undergraduate, 85% post-graduate market. But now it is much higher than that. Many students are going abroad straight after [secondary school], which shows that there is money, there is demand, and there is the market available.”
 
When it comes to approaching the market, Ms Khanna recommends establishing local offices and partners to support Indian students, but also that recruiting institutions plan additional and ongoing marketing initiatives to build their profile with Indian students and families. “Just going and attending a fair once a year is not going to engage them throughout the year,” she adds. “You have to keep doing your online activities, seminars, workshops, and make sure you are doing things consistently to show your commitment to the Indian market.”