A dream deferred: Covid forces Indians looking to study abroad to rethink their plans

Some have had to postpone their plans, others have had to abandon them altogether. A few are going ahead, though.

WrittenBy:Jaishree Kumar
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As the coronavirus outbreak spread around the world, educational institutions were shuttered and flights cancelled. For students looking forward to foreign exchange programmes or pursuing education abroad, it came as a big blow. They had to postpone their plans, or worse.

A member of Ashoka University’s academic affairs committee said several universities have been forced to move their exchange programmes online or postponed them to the next semester.

Sagun Suryavanshi, a third year student of computer science at SRM University of Science and Technology, Chennai, was attending an exchange program at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States when the pandemic hit. “The first lockdown in the Bay Area began in March and that’s when I knew I had to come back home. I returned to Bangalore on March 19,” she said. Suryavanshi had to finish the rest of her course online.

Sankalp Sangle, a final year computer science student at BITS Pilani, was working on his thesis at the National University of Singapore when the pandemic hit the country. “Due to safety concerns, I wasn’t allowed to visit the lab anymore for research and the whole medium of work and research changed to work from home, so I had to change the whole theme of my thesis,” he said.

Sangle, along with other students from BITS Pilani, came back to India on May 10 as part of the Vande Bharat Mission, launched by the Indian government to bring back its citizens stranded abroad by the pandemic. The fourth phase of the mission is expected to begin this Friday.

Sangle continued, “The foreign thesis programme was to last from January until June but it moved online for the last three months.”

Riya Saluja, a communications student at Christ University in Bangalore and three of her classmates were stuck at Université Catholique De Lille, France. “We were advised early on to return to our home countries but both France and India had closed their borders at that point, so we stayed put,” she said. They were evacuated last month.

Many students who were excited to study abroad have had to pause their dreams indefinitely.

Vartika Rastogi, a journalist in Delhi who plans to study in the UK, said, “I approached the universities for the resources and other experiences they would provide. I do not think it will be possible to get that over online classes and it’s not financially feasible to pay an international student’s fee for online classes which is why I’m choosing to reinstate my application next year.”

Several foreign universities have asked students to join as soon as international travel resumes, but security concerns and high costs of living abroad during a global pandemic are holding them back.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Anjaly Gowda a graduate in communication and psychology from Christ University, Benagaluru who applied to the University of York, UK for master’s in psychology. “I travel all the way abroad, pay expensive rent just to sit in a room and take online classes? What’s the point? I don’t understand how colleges will manage placements, internships, laboratory, and tute sessions.”

For some students, a gap year is not a viable alternative. “I will be going ahead with my admission for a master's in psychology from the University of Stirling. Since I plan on studying beyond a master's degree, I really don't want to waste time waiting any further,” said Bani Kohli, a graduate in psychology from Christ University in Bengaluru.

For some, scholarships seem to be the only option. “I took a gap year last year, so if I take one this year as well it won’t look good on my resume. But the possibility of me going to London is tied to the Felix Scholarship,” said Arun Ramasubramanium a graduate in history from Ambedkar University, Delhi , who has applied to the School of African and Oriental Studies in London.

Many universities are going forward with a “blended learning” approach this academic year. They will start the semester with online classes and transition into physical classrooms by the end of the year, or early next year.

Abhijeet Panda who graduated in media, English, and psychology from Christ University, Bengaluru applied to the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. He said he will be flying to Germany to attend college. “There are loads of work from home opportunities right now but nothing beats fieldwork. I will be flying to Germany once it's safer to travel and follow the safety norms prescribed by the university. So far, the university plans on holding online classes for the month of September,” he said.

Pratishtha Deveshwar, a graduate in political science from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, had applied to Oxford University for a master’s in public policy. She said, “All the offer holders have been told by Oxford University that they are expected to be on the campus once the lockdown restrictions are eased and international travel resumes. The course begins from the end of September and we will have a blend of online learning and in-person classes until January 2021, when the university aims to fully transition to in-person classes with all safety measures.”

But for those who have applied to Harvard University in the US, the woes never seem to end.

The Harvard website states that the university offers deferrals of upto two years including for military services and travel.

Shivani Gupta, a former research associate for a Delhi-based non profit had deferred her application to Harvard last year. “I don’t know if I want to defer my application for another year. I quit my job in time to go to Harvard but now I am not so sure,” said Gupta, who planned to study at the university’s Kennedy School of Government.

Prartik, a consultant for Amazon based in Bangalore, has applied to Harvard Business School for an MBA. For him, deferring his application by a year was the only way. “My mother is really old and I don’t want to leave her alone when there’s a global health crisis. I got into my dream college for my dream course, but I had no other option but to defer it.”

A large number of students use education consultancy services to apply to foreign universities. How has the pandemic affected their business?

Rahul Subramaniam of the consultancy Athena Education said President Donald Trump’s H1B visa ban could dissuade Indian students from seeking admission in US universities. “Yes, the visa ban will have its effects but anything can happen in the future. Trump could be voted out of office in November, the visa ban could be rolled back once the Covid situation gets better. What stays consistent is one’s university degree.”

Subramaniam urged students to continue with their applications despite the pandemic. “A gap year is a great idea if you are travelling around the world and doing internships, but the pandemic won’t allow that. The best option for students right now is to continue with their applications. It’s probably a matter of just one semester of online classes. Years down the line, your employers will not care if you did a semester of online classes but will look at the reputed university you went to.”

Has their business taken a hit because of the pandemic? “Business has been normal for us and we have been able to expand our team,” he said. “Most of the students who are in touch with us have decided to go ahead with their application, but a handful have deferred it till the next year.”

Preethi Shalini, a representative from StudyInUK, pointed out that many universities have introduced waivers for students after the pandemic hit. “Students applying to the UK can get waivers for IELTS now and there seems to be more room for scholarships.

I advise students to apply this year and once they have the offer letter, defer their intake to the next year. I can say about 30 percent of the students I know are going ahead with the September intake, about 65 percent have deferred their plans till next year, and the rest five percent have chosen to let go of their plans.”

Preethi added that StudyInUK has seen more enrollments from aspirants during the lockdown period.

But for Karishma Gaur, the owner of FatCat Tutorials, things look different. Gaur has been helping students with their applications since 2010. “My business has all but vanished since the pandemic began. A few of my students came to me and told me they couldn’t afford my services anymore, one of them even disappeared without paying.”


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