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Westward ho — at 18

Aniket Sanjeev, 18, a student from Calcutta who studied at Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ooty, will be applying for admission to a course in games design and development in the UK and the US. Vivek Tiwari from Mumbai too will be studying overseas. He says he always wanted to pursue an undergraduate management course abroad. He made up his mind when he happened to visit a management institute campus in Singapore on his first trip overseas last year. “I love the environment and surroundings,” says Tiwari, also 18.

So what’s unique about them? Sanjeev and Tiwari are among a surging number of students who’re heading overseas straight after school, instead of earning a bachelor’s degree in India and then pursuing higher education in the West, as their parents did.

Yes, students have been heading abroad for some years now after completing their high school. But the numbers have been growing rapidly, thanks to the rise of a new phenomenon — the easier availability of financial aid or the waiver of fees at US universities anxious to induct Indian students.

The number of Indian students applying to US universities for both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes rose steadily from 74,603 in 2002-2003 to 83,833 in 2006-2007. At least “15 to 20 per cent” of the latter (or about 12,575), say US Embassy officials, comprise undergraduate students.

According to British High Commission functionaries, post graduate students comprise more than 65 per cent of the 47,000 who applied for student visas in 2007-2008. And only a minuscule is going for undergraduate studies Down Under, Australian High Commission officials say. Explains a British Council official: “Getting funding for undergraduate education in the UK is very tough and limited because education in the UK is largely a state enterprise and subsidised. Many of the top American universities are private and have corporate sponsors.”

It costs roughly Rs 10 lakh a year to study for an undergraduate degree in the US, versus around Rs 15 lakh for a similar education programme in the UK, though the fees vary from university to university.

Rajesh Arya of the Council for American Education, Delhi, an American education consultancy agency that aids students in applying to US universities, explains why US universities hand out aid more liberally. “Fee waivers by US universities have increased because the education industry is booming in the US. The boom didn’t exist 15 years ago. Add to that competition from other universities and you have these guys going the extra mile.”

“Around 15 years ago, I don’t think we had so many students coming from India to American universities,” confirms John Cummins, educational administrative co-ordinator at the University of California, Berkeley. “Indian students have such a formidable reputation at work and study that they stand a very good chance of getting waivers.”

To be sure, Indian schools with children of wealthy parents have for long seen a good chunk of their students winging their way abroad. In Mumbai, teachers at Campion School say that “almost 60 per cent” of their Class XII batch went abroad last year. Adds Meera Isaacs, principal, Cathedral & John Connon, “Two years ago we had nearly 90 students out of a batch of roughly 150 that went to the US.”

So University Grants Commission (UGC) chairman Sukhadeo Thorat has a point when he dismisses the trend as being an urban, upper-middle class phenomenon. “These are families that can afford the entire process of applying to American universities. Exams like the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and the application fees for various universities cost a lot. That’s not the case for the rest of India,” says he.

Yet the argument misses the fact that more students now go to US universities after receiving financial aid. Last fortnight, Amalina Dave, a Class XII student of Springdale School in New Delhi, set off for Wellesley College in New York after getting more that 95 per cent tuition fee waiver and additional financial aid from the university. Rik Sengupta, who has just passed his Higher Secondary exam from Calcutta’s South Point High School, has bagged full scholarships to as many as seven top rung US colleges, including Princeton, Yale, the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University. Rik, a topper in school throughout, has finally decided to study mathematics at Princeton, where he plans to take a course in creative writing as well.

Says Kamal Jadhav, head of the English department at Mumbai’s Jai Hind College, whose son Rahul, a Maharashtra under-16 swimming champion from Mumbai’s Campion School went to the University of California, Berkeley, last year for undergraduate studies: “My son applied to 15 US colleges and nine of them waived off more than 60 per cent of his tuition fees.” Rahul finally settled for Berkeley, which gave him an 85 per cent tuition waiver.

Says Roshan Dalal, an academic who has written history books for children and has taught at Rishi Valley School at Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh, “No country can be happy if the brightest of its youth wants to move out.” Figures on how many of these students return to India are difficult to come by, but some certainly won’t in the near future. Keya Advani, who was studying history honours at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, left for Hamilton College in the US because she managed to get 90 per cent funding. Her father, Rukun Advani, publisher of book publishing company Permanent Black, says that his daughter is just a year away from graduating, will soon intern at New York NGO Global Justice and is mulling over a job offer in Thailand.

The rush overseas is explained by several factors. With cut-off percentages high, getting admission to good Indian colleges is increasingly becoming tough. “Many of my friends plan on going abroad because of the lack of seats in Indian colleges, many of them going to the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes,” notes Sanjeev. Anahita Devitre, principal of Mumbai’s J B Petit High School, makes another point: “Far more options are available in countries such as the US at the undergraduate level. If you have not done science or maths in school here, you can take it up as subjects at the undergrad level there. That kind of flexibility attracts students from here.”

Finally, nearly everyone cites the dismal state of Indian education. Says journalist David Devadas, who has taught media and mass communications, “There are inadequate undergraduate options in India.” Admits Prof Yashpal, a former UGC chairman, “Our education system kills the creative spirit and individuality of our students. We should be able to give students the option of learning graphic designing and book keeping and accountancy at the same time.”

Till that happens, expect more like Sanjeev and Amalina to look to the west for greener pastures.

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