The Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant global economic slowdown coupled with the tightening of H1-B visa rules in the United States have thrown the higher education plans of international students off track. A study by Quacquarelli Symonds, which analyses higher education globally, found that more than 60% of Indian students have decided to defer their university admission – and with that, their plans of moving to a foreign country.

With classes for several universities around the world moving online, a trend that is expected to continue for months to come, Indian students are also questioning whether a foreign education is even worth the high investment.

According to Soundarya Balasubramani, the author of Admitted, a guide to studying abroad, the change from in-person to virtual learning doesn’t necessarily have to be a dealbreaker. “There is something that differentiates a good student from a great student in the current era of learning online because you don’t get to speak up in classes anymore and you don’t get to work on projects with each other anymore,” she said. “So you just have to find a new way to stand out.”

The 24-year-old, who moved from Chennai to the United States three years ago, spoke to about the misconceptions that Indian students have about studying abroad and how the pandemic is expected to change things.

What do you believe is the charm of foreign education for Indian students?

I came to the United States on a scholarship programme back in summer 2016. That was the first time I stepped foot outside India, so those three months still remain one of the most blissful times of my life. It was a good mix of being around other Indians who got what I was feeling: being in a new country for the first time, but still experiencing all the culture shocks that anyone is bound to experience when they come to the US or any country for the first time.

I got this rosy picture of the United States because back then I didn’t face a lot of challenges, so that made me want to come back. And I also realised that one would never meet such diverse kind of people back in India.

Generally, I think Indian students are so attracted to studying abroad because of the promise of the aftermath. You are promised that if you earn a masters degree in the US, you can emerge as someone who has this really high market value and can settle down into a very convenient lifestyle. That is the image that they get, one that I think is attractive enough for someone to spend upwards of Rs 50 plus lakhs in trying to achieve.

I wouldn’t discount this, but I think students should understand how much more courageous they would become by living in a foreign country as opposed to their cocooned lifestyle back in India.

What are some misconceptions that Indian students have about studying abroad, and what consequences can a sense of disillusionment have?

The biggest misconception I think is that students don’t think about what’s in the middle. Once you get your admit, there’s a sense of high where you feel like you can conquer everything. Then you look at the LinkedIn profiles of your seniors and see them talking about getting their job offers and doing well in their job. But in-between is not talked about as much.

One of the first things you notice when you come to the United States to study is that the sheer volume of the times you hear the word ‘no’ – it’s insane. Unlike in India, most foreign universities don’t have the concept of a placement cell. It took eight months before I finally got my internship offer back in 2018. It was eight months of applying to companies daily, standing in rooms filled with people that you don’t know and finding the courage to approach them and ask for their email addresses and then shamelessly ask them to refer you – and then being okay with the fact that they’re going to say no.

In the US, especially right now, the competition is fierce, only made worse by the pandemic. You have to be creative in getting a job. You cannot go online, apply for a job and hope for the best anymore. But I think the middle part is being talked about more now. I see a lot of posts on LinkedIn about struggles and failures, more so than anything else.

How will the pandemic change the higher education landscape in the long term?

I would speculate three things for higher education post-pandemic.

First, online education would overtake in-person classes. The advantages are it’s remote, cheaper and flexible. But there are a lot of disadvantages. The fact that you don’t even have to go to a class anymore to learn would not play well with someone who doesn’t have the inherent motivation to do so in the first place. You would also be losing the dynamics of in-person interactions, and I can see the effects of that even right now at work. You also don’t get to work on research projects, which require equipment and lab resources. However, despite all of this, I still think online education would trump in-person classes – with some changes.

Secondly, I think universities would start cutting down their expenditure. Since students are not on campus anymore, they might reduce their staff – which many have already done. Universities will begin cutting down on the resources they have for students and probably redirect some of that into better equipment for them, like high-quality internet connection.

Additionally, I think universities will try to recruit more students. Those surviving mainly on international students’ tuition fee will try to recruit even more students for the next academic year. Being online makes it much easier to add more capacity. Students are worried that it would be tougher to get an admit for the fall 2021 semester because many have deferred their admits, but they don’t realise that it’s not fixed capacity – you can tweak it and add hundred more students for next year.

The US and UK have been among the most sought after destinations for higher education among Indian students. How are the pandemic and the tightening of visa and immigration policies going to change that?

A shift is already being seen. Studies show that international students are considering Canada and New Zealand over the US and UK due to their more conducive policies and lower Covid-19 cases. But beyond that, in terms of, does it make sense to pay the same tuition for online education, I would personally say no. Many of the interactions that I had on campus in person were what enriched my experience at Columbia.

Instead of saying if it’s worth it or not, I would say that if I choose an online degree, I would do it very differently. I wouldn’t just sit at home, listen to the classes and then do the assignments. Rather, I would spend a significant amount of my day participating in in-person meet-ups. I would focus my time on being a part of these hubs at different places. I would create a brand for myself through LinkedIn and reach out to people actively and not care about quantity as much as quality.

I would also try to look at things differently because everything is online, which industries are actually doing well right now, which industries I think would still be required ten years from now –that’s where I would focus my entire energy.

There is something that differentiates a good student from a great student in the current era of learning online because you don’t get to speak up in classes anymore and you don’t get to work on projects with each other anymore. So you just have to find a new way to stand out.

Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share?

It’s kind of funny that I published a book on studying abroad at a time when most people are thinking about not doing it. If I was in their place, I would probably think the same way. But what I can say is that, as I mentioned in the book, studying abroad is neither rosy nor dreadful. It’s going to be both. What I can say with certainty is that I learned more in the past three years since I came to the US than I did in the first 21 years of my life.