High ranking, pocket-friendly and closer home: Why Asian universities are becoming more popular among Indian students

While traditionally the ‘study abroad dream’ was largely restricted to America, the UK and Europe, there has been an increased popularity of Asian universities among students from India aspiring to study abroad in recent years.

The reaction of older generations among friends and family suggested that her acceptance into Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore was merely a “consolation prize”, says Ruchi, an alumnus of the university.

She, however, thinks otherwise. “Not much is known about the universities in Singapore, both about their educational standards and about their very beneficial and necessary financial aid,” she said.

Ruchi chose to look beyond the illusion of college ranks and beyond the “American dream of freedom” in order to secure her future. She took into account “the fact that the initial money required to go to Europe and the USA was much more than that required to go to Singapore”.

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A 50 per cent reduction in the tuition fees and three years’ work experience guaranteed made her secure her decision. While this was a wise move financially, NTU and NUS (National University of Singapore) were also ranked as a few of the best universities worldwide, said Ruchi.

, better availability of financial aid, easier work opportunities and the fact that Asian universities are increasingly being ranked as some of the best in the world are some of the reasons for their newfound desirability among Indians.

The fading of the ‘American dream’

The idea of living the ‘American dream’ has for long been the reason behind thousands of Indian students leaving for the United States each year. As per the Open Doors 2020 Report on International Educational Exchange, India was the second-largest source for international students in the United States after China. The data showed that 193,124 students from India had taken admission to an American university in the year 2019-20.

“It is a false sense of a lucrative, successful and happy life that one could achieve by studying in the west,” says Radhika Bhargava, a PhD candidate from the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore. According to college counselor  Shayantan Rahman, colleges like Berkeley and Harvard are “global brands” which make them more enticing to the parental generation, while newer, specialised and niche colleges are more appealing to the younger generation. While a lot of families prefer US universities due to their “perceived signalling value”, more and more people, particularly those from fairly middle-class backgrounds, are starting to move away from this trend.

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Bhargava completed her undergraduate and Masters degrees from the US before moving to Singapore for her doctorate. She says that while applying for her undergraduate studies she did not look at any country apart from the US. “Anything good in Asia was unheard of due to my lack of awareness. American universities are highly publicised,” she says.

The increased political and financial uncertainties in the west and lack of funding opportunities for her doctoral research on environmental conservation were the prime reasons for her to look for options in the east. “Now the financial situation of the west is shaky and the east is becoming stronger. Other factors like promoting their programs, being at par with the western education system, and also competing with them in internationally recognised ranking systems are reasons why Asia is becoming more desirable,” she says.

Easy access to financial aid

Money is a key factor driving decisions for aspirants of abroad education from India. Soumil Roychowdhury, an undergraduate student at Hong Kong University (HKU), says that one of the biggest factors behind his choice was that the university offered a large scholarship. “While I was preparing my applications, I had observed that countries like Hong Kong and Singapore are a lot more liberal with scholarship opportunities than universities in America,” he says.

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Speaking about why he encourages students to be open to education in Asian countries, Rahman says that countries like Singapore and Hong Kong “have various mechanisms for offering financial support to international students, often in exchange for a commitment to stay and work in that country”.  “They generally have lower tuition fees as compared to US colleges, which makes them a good option for families who may find a US undergraduate degree to be too expensive,” he says.

The decision to study abroad is also dependent on the availability of job opportunities and return on investment that one can expect. “The US makes it immensely difficult for many Indian graduates to obtain work visas, and the UK’s economic outlook post-Brexit is still unclear, so students are seeking alternatives,” notes Rahman.

“At the same time, acceptance rates to aspirational universities in these two countries have fallen to record lows (the acceptance rate for most elite US universities fell below 5% last year) making it hard for all but the best-prepared students to receive an offer,” he explains.

The kind of education one prefers

The choice of a university is also dependent on the kind of education one is looking for. Rishi Chandan, a 12th-grade student in Mumbai, who is preparing to apply to three universities in Singapore and Hong Kong, says the difference between American and Asian universities is in the “focus on merit”. “While applying to the Asian universities I feel there is not so much stress on my extracurriculars and more focus is placed on academic performance,” he says.

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Chandan believes that American universities offer more freedom when it comes to the choice of subjects and specialisation, for instance, several colleges allow a mix of arts, business and science. “There may be certain students who wish to add a mix of subjects, and for them the colleges in the west are more preferable,” he says.

Colleges in Asia, on the other hand, he feels, are “focused on the fundamentals of the specialisation, and ensure you can excel at it”. The education system in Asia being more academically driven similar to that in India also comes across as more appealing to Indian students, says Chandan.

Roychowdhury agrees there is a difference in priorities between American and Asian universities. “I think atleast in the beginning stages, the Asian schools have a more advanced curriculum. I think because of this fact, students in Asian schools pick up certain skills a bit earlier compared to American schools,” he says.

Close to home

Cost and quality of education aside, there is also the factor of distance from home that accounts for the choice of universities in Asia among Indian students. Chandan says he personally finds Asia to be a “comfortable place to live in”. “It’s closer to home for me and provides a familiar environment to study in.”

Bhargava says her family was happy with her choice of university in Singapore since it was closer, “which meant I could visit more often and they could afford to visit me too”.

Studying in the east, she says, has also enriched her understanding of the developments, strengths, capabilities, and opportunities in the global south. “I also understand rural, developing, local populations better by working and studying in Asia which I wouldn’t have been exposed to in the US.”

(Urvija is an intern with indianexpress.com) 

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