Recent times have seen a clamp down in the visa application and issuance procedure by study abroad destinations, particularly the UK and Australia. Unscrupulous student visa agents in India and their 'nexus' with colleges overseas have caused the countries to take aggressive steps to weed out undeserving students, and in the process genuine students have been caught in the middle. But it is the genuine students that these countries still welcome and it's no wonder that they have taken drastic measures to revamp their image and improve the situation.
"While money is a vital criterion when determining a student's ability to survive abroad, embassies should give due importance to the academic excellence and communication skills while granting visas," says Gulshan Kumar, former Education Officer, Australian High Commission, New Delhi.
As Australia is limping back to normalcy following 'racial' attacks on Indian students and the UK having resumed accepting visa applications in northern India, he discusses various issues pertaining to the study abroad scenario. He is currently the director of Delhi-based Kangaroo Studies (Punjab), an education and study abroad company that has been assisting students for over a decade and a half.
Excerpts from an interview with RMS Atwal:
How has the UK and Australia situation impacted Indian students' study abroad plans?
I think both the UK and Australia are looking for genuine students. As far the UK is concerned, it was expecting some fallout because of unprecedented rush for applications. It's good that Britain has again started accepting student visa applications in northern India. I am sure Australia will also ease its visa norms for genuine and academically strong students seeking higher education in universities in established government and private colleges.
Is the Australian High Commission is taking longer to grant visas now?
Well, the Australians have burnt their fingers once after their government found that 70-80 per cent of students applying for student visas were not genuine. Later when the students' and their agents' attention focused on the UK that country also faced lot of problems on account of those students having limited communication skills. Many Indian agents have abused the British system because there was a provision to waive the IELTS requirement. Consequently, they had to suspend the application collection process in North India. This has made the High Commission extra-vigilant.
It is not true that the Australian High Commission has now stopped issuing visas. Students are getting visas almost daily. But for those students who are not genuine, not fully prepared, not aware of their study plans and do not even know the outcome of their student plans, not aware of living costs, etc there will be problems.
Actually, now every country is going to be strict in an effot to weed out fake students and agents.
From your experience with Australian education, do you think there is a silver lining in the current Australian situation?
I know Australia for over 30 years now, I am in constant touch with the authorities and that country is still accepting genuine students. Their financial criterion is the toughest one. That's the reason the number of students going to Australia has fallen. We have requested the Australian government to assess genuine students -- who want to pursue degrees or master's programmes and who have a high standard of education as well communication skills -- under a different system. So, our demand is under consideration and if it materialises then Australia will be bouncing back in the Indian market.
Do you think it will affect Indian students' migration to countries like Canada, the US and the Europe?
I think the scenario has completely changed. Earlier, these countries were not talking to each other. So, the students used to hop from one country to another without disclosing their real intentions. Now since all these countries are exchanging information about fake students, it is very difficult for such students to migrate to such countries. The Indian government for its part has asked all countries to issue student visas to genuine students.
Do you see a similar situation developing in New Zealand given the glut of Indian students in that country?
Well, I am one of the New Zealand specialist agents in India (of only 24 in the country). That country is very careful while handling visas. I don't think they would allow such a situation to happen in Kiwi-land. But the pressure is there on NZ as the number of applications have increased. They are very careful in view of the UK and the Australia situation.
Don't you think the 'no IELTS' condition is responsible for the current state of affairs?
Yes. You see, students going abroad without clearing the IELTS are very high risk because they cannot communicate and study properly and cannot even get part-time work there. Australia has a very clear-cut policy and the IELTS is mandatory.
On the other hand, New Zealand shows flexibility in only those cases where students can provide a document showing higher communication skills -- good marks in Class 10 and 12, preferably in an English medium school.
Yes, the UK made a mistake and thus is suffering. It was the first one to come up with the 'no IELTS' offer which was misused by Indian agents. The consequences are for everybody to see.
Now students' tuition fees are stuck in UK colleges and universities. What can be done?
I can't say about the UK but Australia has a clear-cut policy where they protect the fees if a college is closed or student's visa is refused. They have already accommodated a number of students of those colleges which have closed down due to the tough criteria of the Australian government. As you know, a law is already in place and students need not have to worry about tuition fees if their colleges are closed. A fee refund provision is also there if the visa is rejected.
For the UK, I'm nit sure about the laws they have -- how they handle the situation is yet to be seen.
How justified is it to mix permanent residency with foreign study?
Well, education is a pathway (to permanent residency) because India is known for its manpower and many countries are running short of it. At the same time different countries have their own criteria for permanent residency. For example, in Australia, if a student studies for two years and acquires a qualification he can apply for a work permit or permanent residency under the points system as the case may be.
But, again the system has been misused. Some of the courses were marketed in India only for permanent residency rather than for education. The Australian government has recently brought many changes to de-link education from the migration. That's the reason that the Australian Visa Office in New Delhi is interviewing every student going for vocational education in Australia very minutely and issuing visas only to students who have genuine intentions to acquire education rather than PR.
What steps do you think will improve the situation Indian students find themselves in at this point of time?
I think countries should not just focus on the students' financial documents as a sole criterion; they should also take into consideration their academic background and communication skills. If a student has all the three he should be assessed under a streamlined system.
Also, they should not put all students under one category. This is the mistake made by the UK and Australia. For example, there are two types of students in India. The first are those who have high academic standards with great communication skills and who want to pursue higher education abroad. The second are students who are misled by some agents, charged heavily, do not have any education interests and wish to go abroad to work illegally. The second is a high-risk category. They need to be identified and separated from the low-risk, genuine students' category.
Genuine students should also choose institutions carefully before remitting any fees.
RMS Atwal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org