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Why the number of Indian students in the US is dropping

November 18, 2013 14:51 IST

Why the number of Indian students in the US is dropping

Aziz Haniffa

Rajika Bhandari, the Institute of International Education's lead researcher and co-author of the annual Open Doors report, which the IIE releases in collaboration with the US Department of State's Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, has said the decline of Indian students to US for the third consecutive year, is largely due to the devaluation of the rupee.

In an interview with, she also explained the rationale behind China surging ahead as the biggest supplier of international students to American universities and the discrepancy over the marked dip in Indian students overall, but the dramatic increase in graduates students from India to the US, as noted in a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools.

For the third successive year, the number of Indian students pursuing higher studies in the US has dipped, and for the first time since 2008/09 the number has dropped below 100,000. Meanwhile China has pulled way ahead with an increase of 21.4 per cent to India’s decrease of 3.4 per cent on the heels of the drop of 4 per cent in 2011/12. What’s your take on this continuing decrease in the number of students from India, considering that a few years ago, it seemed that India, which had replaced China as the supplier of the highest number of students to the US, would maintain that lead?

One of the main factors associated with the decline facing Indian students is what happened with the rupee in recent times in India, where it has become sharply devalued against the dollar and that may have affected some Indian students to come and study in the US because it’s simply so difficult for them to afford the US dollar. This might have especially affected Indian undergraduate students because we know that most international undergraduate students who come to the US pay their own way. So, they may be harder hit because it’s harder for them to seek out loans and use their own funds with the rupee being so devalued.

Could it also be that Indian undergraduate students may have found alternatives for their higher education that have become popular like institutions and universities in Australia, Canada, Singapore, Europe, etc?

They may have found alternatives, but not in terms of other destination countries because if you look at overall numbers, the US still receives by far the largest number of Indian students in the world. If they are looking to alternative destinations, they are probably looking for options such as branch campuses, either in the Middle East or in Singapore.

We know for example that many Indian institutions also have their branch campuses either in the Gulf region or in Singapore as do US and UK institutions. So, some Indian students must be choosing to go to those branch campuses because one, it’s closer to home, and, two, it maybe a bit more affordable.

This is a question I asked Peggy (Blumenthal -- senior counsellor to the president of IIE and who has been with this organisation for over 25 years) too when we spoke last year and the year before when the numbers of Indian students began to dip and India was replaced by China as the largest supplier of students to the US. That whether it was an undeniable fact that the Chinese government for example, would dole out scholarships, funding or financial assistance to Chinese students, which could be a major factor in China topping India and showing the sort of sustained growth rates when it comes to the number of students it sends to the US, since the Indian government doesn’t offer government funding for undergraduate students and hence study in the US is governed by many exigencies -- from their income levels to things like the strength of the rupee to the dollar?

That’s absolutely true. The Chinese government has provided a fair amount of financial support for Chinese students through a China Scholarship Council to go overseas and they’ve also provided scholarships for international students to come to China, which is why we now see through some of our data that China is not only the world’s largest supplier of international students but it is also now the number four host country.

One percentage that seems hard to reconcile and has surprised many and has been reported in the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers, is how the annual survey of 285 members of the Council of Graduate Schools have shown India with a whopping 40 per cent increase over the past two years of graduate students to the US that registered only one or two per cent growth -- and this 40 per cent jump has left China in the dust since it only showed an increase of 5 per cent for graduate students. How do you explain this discrepancy with your data, which shows a marked decrease of Indian students and that of the CGS survey?

The CGS study was restricted just to graduate students but when you look at the Open Doors survey, we cover all academic levels. So, we include undergraduate students, graduate students, as well as those who are here on non-degree studies. So, our survey includes thousands of institutions, whereas the CGS survey is just a fraction of those institutions. So, the coverage is very different.

Secondly, the time frame is different. Our survey -- our data -- that we just released, reflects the prior academic year. It reflects the 2012/2013 academic year, whereas the CGS data is for the current semester that has just begun in the US. Those are two key differences. But there could be a couple of things going on in the differences between their data and ours for India.

They are showing this tremendous increase in graduate enrollment for this year and we are showing an overall decline. One is, the fact that as I mentioned earlier, our data also includes undergraduate students and also other students from India who might have been affected more disproportionately by what’s going on with the Indian currency devaluation. So, that’s one reason. Another explanation could be that perhaps it is possible that the tide is beginning to turn for Indian graduate students and we see the overall numbers going up again. But we won’t know that for a year from now.

But what I am finding hard to reconcile and even comprehend is that the CGS survey shows an incredible jump vis-a-vis Indian graduate students to the US, which is unprecedented -- 40 per cent compared to earlier anaemic one and two per cent increases? How could the tide have turned in such a dramatic fashion? This compared to the Chinese graduate increase being more sustained and sans any such dramatic increase?

Like I said, I am not going to comment on the accuracy or validity of their data but what I would once again say is that while overall their survey and our survey for graduate education does match up, for example, if you compare the data for this year, which we just released with the data that they released last year -- which is sort of a comparable time frame -- both surveys show a decline for India (Indian students), So, I would say their survey is just as legitimate as ours except that there are these key differences that you have to keep in mind about those different surveys, which is why the numbers don’t always seem entirely comparable.

I believe that according to your data over the years, there are more graduate students, particularly from India, going in for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects?

Yes, that’s correct …

And, is that a manifestation of a trend that compared to Chinese students, the majority of whom I believe return to China, Indian graduate students tend to stay back in the US on H-1B visas etc. and gain employment and ultimately become entrepreneurs and decide to live here after obtaining their permanent residency?

I believe that both Chinese and Indian students are almost equally likely to stay on. Of course, the number of Chinese students are much larger overall, but we are seeing… we don’t collect data on where students end up after they finish their education. But anecdotally, what we hear is that many Chinese and Indian students stay on whereas South Koreans students actually return to their home country.

Given that China now definitely seems to be pulling way ahead of India when one considers the numbers in recent years, particularly the massive increase last year, can this exponential increases be attributed to the fact that there is much more US business and other investment in China by Fortune 500 companies than there is in India, and an US higher education degree could envisage better employments prospects for Chinese students who decide to go back or even work with the US companies here, who would also find them having more distinct advantages than an American student in terms of language proficiency, cultural knowledge, etc?

It’s certainly possible that there is this investment and business angle that is contributing to these growing numbers, but also the bilateral efforts between the two countries also has a large effect, for example, even at the US end -- the 100,000-strong Initiative for China -- where the US is really trying to get 100,000 American students to go to China. But there are also a lot of efforts at both ends to send students in the opposite direction and the governments of both countries have been much more active and engaged than has the government of India. So, that has been one big difference. That being said, there has of course, been the Higher Education Dialogue between the US government and the Indian government, the Obama-Singh Initiative, the new initiative of implementing American-style community colleges in India. But, we have to wait and see if all of that is really implemented and turns into reality over the rhetoric.

With China now clearly surging ahead and Beijing and Washington clearly taking a conscious decision to send more students in either direction, is there any chance that India could catch up again and even once again be a net supplier of more students to the US than China, like it did a few years ago, or is it like in terms of US investment into China which is more than 10 times its investment in India, that China’s lead is now way beyond any challenge from India vis-a-vis more students in the US for higher education overall?

It’s too soon to tell whether dips in the Indian numbers that we’ve seen over the past year or so will become part of an overall trend of decline from India. So, one, I would say it is too early to tell, and second, what I would say is that we shouldn’t focus exclusively on just the mobility numbers because there are so many other things we should be looking at -- looking at other ways how students are engaging internationally. It’s possible that there’s been a rise in Indian students participating in joint and dual-degree programmes. It’s possible that more Indian students are engaging in on-line learning from a US institution. So, there are all these other models that students are now exploring and all that’s going to have an impact on numbers.

So, yes, the numbers are important, but we should also focus on the broader context and the reality is that India is also working hard to set up more higher education institutions to meet the growing demand for a higher education. Thus, it’s possible that some students in India are choosing to stay back in India, or as I said earlier, go to neighboring countries in Asia or to explore branch campuses.


Image: Inset: Rajika Bhandari
Photographs: Rediff Archives; Inset: