Overseas education: Students in pursuit of ‘culture’ over ‘career’

In terms of country of choice, while Indian students have typically opted to study in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia—which remain the top four destinations—they are also choosing newer alternatives such as Germany, Italy, Ireland, Turkey, Russia and China.

What’s changing now is the level of means of students and families for whom this option is available.
What’s changing now is the level of means of students and families for whom this option is available.

By Sohini Rajola

For more than a century, students in India have been drawn to the opportunity of an international education, for various reasons: The opportunity to learn from foreign cultures; to receive quality education; to gain international exposure; and to improve employability.

What’s changing now is the level of means of students and families for whom this option is available.

While a broader array of Indian families sending children overseas to learn was a discernible trend, the Covid-19 pandemic has sent Gen Z on a particular quest for individualism. There has been a considerable shift in how students and parents view their options for education overseas, with societal expectations and cultural nuances affecting their decision-making process.

To explore these unprecedented trends and glean insights on how we can best help families take advantage of this opportunity, Western Union commissioned research from Nielsen Inc to explore the journey Indian families go through together in pursuit of an international education and a global future for their children.
One key takeaway is that nearly half (45%) of student respondents prioritise ‘self-dependence’ and the opportunity to ‘live life on their own terms’ as key motivations to explore international learning opportunities.

Data from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) shows that students from more than 70,000 families went overseas to study in the first two months of 2021, undeterred by the pandemic. A majority of the students in Nielsen’s survey cited personal development as the most significant driver triggering their decision to study overseas. They believe that being in a foreign country empowers them to exercise their independence and live life on their own terms. This was followed by ‘cultural exploration’ and ‘international exposure’ as drivers of their decision-making process. On the other hand, ‘access to increased job opportunities’ and ‘quality of life post-global education’, which have been more popular reasons cited until very recently, are now much lower down the consideration list, or falling off completely.

In terms of country of choice, while Indian students have typically opted to study in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia—which remain the top four destinations—they are also choosing newer alternatives such as Germany, Italy, Ireland, Turkey, Russia and China.

Also, students now prefer specialised courses (52%) over the reputation of a university when making a choice. As it relates to obstacles, qualifying exams remain a big barrier for students (64%), leading to them opting to study in countries/universities that do not have entrance exams or mandatory English proficiency tests.

Money-related concerns, particularly budgeting and financial planning, are predictable barriers cited by both students and parents. India is generally viewed as the world’s top remittance-receiving nation, but today citizens and residents are increasingly sending money out across borders as they participate in the global economy—accessing international education, medicine, travel and other services. The market for outbound remittances is estimated at $12.7 billion for FY21, but outward remittances by resident Indians have risen 39% in July 2021 compared to October 2020, with a notable uptick in outflows for education purposes.

Even when means are not an issue, Nielsen’s research shows the importance to families that students remain financially supported and connected at all times.
Western Union has been operating in India since 1993 and has a history of creating one of the largest money movement networks covering the first and last mile in the country. We now also offer the convenience of digital service to people sending money out of India—helping make the dream of studying overseas a reality for more students and their families than ever before.

More students studying abroad—and for their own reasons of personal choice and self-determination, rather than simply an obligation to earn money to support their families at home—is yet another sign of India’s economic transformation. More and more of our children are now experiencing the personal growth and empowerment conferred by studies overseas. It is an exciting time, if a nervous one, for these students and their families.

The author is head of Regional Network, Middle East and APAC, Western Union

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