Sawini Kabi fears she may have to reconsider her higher education plans. The Class 12 student has been accepted by the Florida Institute of Technology for an engineering course but is no longer sure if an undergraduate programme in the United States is a good idea.

Kabi’s apprehension stems from media reports in January of a leaked draft of what is allegedly an unsigned executive order that talks about cancelling the stay-on period for overseas students in the US – extensions of one year for work and practical training for all students, and two years for science and technology graduates. “If I cannot work there for some years, I do not really see the point in going,” she said.

Even rumours can be devastating for the thousands of Indian students heading abroad, for whom the programme of study is rarely the only consideration. A major deciding factor for those digging into their savings or taking loans to pay for their courses is how easy a country makes it for them to join its workforce. “You want to earn money in the same currency you are spending,” said Shray Jindal of Global Education Consultancy Services.

Education consultants expect the uncertainty over visa regulations in the US to lead to greater interest in countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. The size of Indian contingents to these countries have already grown significantly over the past six years.

Top choice

In 2015-2016, over 1.6 lakh students from India were enrolled in American universities, making the US the top higher education choice for Indians, according to the Open Doors Report on international students. “It [the US] was the big one,” said education counsellor Pervin Malhotra. “Students could work, it has a large Indian diaspora community, people felt comfortable.”

Arshad Nasser, studying industrial design at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, planned to apply to US universities for a PhD but has been forced to reconsider. “Students take large sums from India and you need a window to earn at least a part of that,” he said. “Not long ago, my friend completed a two-year master’s programme and was able to repay her loan within a year of working in California.” The stay-on period is also when companies recruit and students attempt to obtain work visas.

Sthithpragya Gupta, a final-year mechanical engineering student at IIT-Delhi, has applied to American universities for a master’s in robotics. “The opportunity to work in the US was my primary reason for not applying to universities in Europe,” he said. “My plan was to study, work for five-six years there to gain experience and then return to set up something on my own. This was meant to be a long-term investment.”

Such a plan seems more and more uncertain now in the backdrop of the document leak as well as the Donald Trump administration’s entry ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and its reported plans to overhaul the H-1B work visa programme.

However, the furore over US visa reforms has impacted some students more than others. Piyush Agrawal of Abroad Education Consultants observed that applicants from non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) backgrounds were more put off by the rumours than their counterparts in science. “Also, members of the Muslim minority are no longer considering the US,” he added.

Reflecting this concern, the first statement Arshad Nasser made when asked about studying in the US was, “I am a Muslim.” He said he knew of friends “who just want to complete their study and get out.”

Permanent residence ease

A good programme of study is not the only draw for students. Education consultants said a large section of their clients look for what Shray Jindal calls “permanent resident ease”.

They pointed out that for long, the United Kingdom enjoyed a clear edge over others in attracting students in this regard. But, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, enrolment of Indian students in that country dropped from 29,900 in 2011-2012 to 16,750 in 2015-2016. This drop was attributed to stricter visa regulations. “Over 2010-2011, UK made it mandatory for students to get jobs that would pay them as much as UK graduates to obtain work permits,” explained Agrawal. “This made it very difficult to find jobs. Consequently, despite an increase in the number of scholarships, the numbers have dropped.”

Pointing to another reason why the United Kingdom lost appeal among students, Jindal said, “The stay-on period is just three months.”

Back-up plans

With the United Kingdom a difficult proposition and the United States looking uncertain, students in India are hauling out and dusting their back-up plans.

For Kabi, it is Canada. “My daughter had applied in four US universities and one in Canada,” said her mother, Sovana Sangram. “We had planned to apply at a second Canadian university but when she received her confirmation from Florida, we did not. But we will now think about it and take a decision.”

Consultants Malhotra, Jindal and Agrawal all agreed that Canada would see a sharp increase in interest. Statistics from the Canadian Bureau for International Education showed that in 2015-2016, 49,000 (14%) of the 353,000 international students enrolled in the country’s universities were Indians – a growth of over 25% from their numbers in 2014-2015.

“In Canada, you can get a work permit for up to three years after graduation,” said Agrawal, explaining the spike.

Australia, too, is highly popular and, judging by the anxious queries they are fielding daily, education consultants expect it to get even more so. Records with the Indian High Commission in Australia showed that in 2015, 42,166 Indians were enrolled in higher education institutions and vocational education training programmes there. In 2016, that number rose to 49,280 – while enrolment in language and other short-term courses and schools took it up further to 51,809.

New Zealand is also seeing a massive influx of Indians students, with their numbers rising from 11,415 in 2010 to 28,370 in 2015, according to statistics available on the government website Education Counts.

For IIT student Arshad Nasser, his Plan B is either Germany or Italy. “They are leaders in my discipline, industrial design, and education is subsidised or free,” he explained.

Germany, despite the language barrier outside educational institutions, has seen Indian enrolments more than double from 5,038 in 2010-2011 to 13,740 in 2015-2016, according to the DAAD-German Academic Exchange Service. Jindal pointed out that the country allows students to stay on for 18 months after their graduation, with or without a job.

Other options

Apart from these popular choices, Jindal said countries like Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden were also attracting Indian students. “Most of them have some entirely free or heavily subsidised programmes,” he said. “And with some of the European countries, you get a Schengen visa, and with their train networks, you can travel to other countries to appear for interviews too.”

He conceded that some may face a language barrier in these countries – students and prospective applicants routinely discuss this in online chatrooms and on social media – but added that this problem was “not insurmountable”. After all, he reasoned, “during the programme, you do pick up another language and those courses are free or really cheap”.

Malhotra pointed out that these countries tend to attract science students.

Settling down

However, the influx of Indian students into new territories has not been without tension. A 2015 response to a post on living in Germany said: “There is racism and racist attack, sometimes reported but most of the time goes unreported… Personally I have known [of a] couple of such attacks [that] happened.” The respondent furnished a link to a June 2015 report on a violent attack on Indian students in the university city of Jena.

Similar attacks on Indian students were reported in Australia in the 2000s.

There have also been many cases of deportation of Indian students, for many of whom the opportunity to work and settle abroad is not just an important consideration but is often the only one. Consequently, under-prepared candidates are pouring into countries like New Zealand, facilitated by agents in their home countries. In 2016, over a hundred of them were served orders for deportation after it was discovered that India-based agents who had done their paperwork had used fake financial documents.

Alison Booth, professor at the Auckland University of Technology, confronts such problems on a routine basis. “There is a large group of students who go to private tertiary education providers for short certificate courses and diplomas, expecting permanent residency to follow,” she said. “Some have cheated on their exams or have had their scores inflated. We realised later they had to be retested.”

As a board member of the New Zealand India Research Institute, Booth found herself attending a meeting on this issue with the Human Rights Commission, at a police station in Manukau, an Auckland suburb, with a large Indian population last year. Many of those facing deportation had disrupted the government’s Diwali celebration.

“Many well-qualified students come for degree programmes or research. They are a completely different case and many get good jobs,” Booth said. “But government desire for foreign-student income has opened the floodgates and this small country is having trouble absorbing so many people.”

Malhotra encouraged a “more balanced view”, even of the US visa regime situation and the proposal to double the minimum salary requirement for H-1B visa holders to $130,000. “The companies were getting cheap labour through the earlier system and local graduates were denied,” he explained.