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The ‘Fall’ of the Study-Abroad Dream in Times of Covid-19 – Deferred or Dropped? Digital or Real?

Representative Image.

Representative Image.

Academic calendars have gone for a toss the world over. Indian students who had formalities to fulfil ahead of landing in US or UK colleges for education say they have no clarity on the situation.

New Delhi: Mumbai-based architecture student Urvi Pawar’s dream came true when she got admission in an Ivy League college in the United States to pursue a specialised course in design. But the realisation of the dream now appears set for deferral or going virtual.

While Urvi's college is considering postponement, she says “consideration is not clarity”. And when there is no clarity, students clamour for a Plan B. Some are lucky while others have to put their dreams on hold when a pandemic is raging.

“A few colleges like mine are being lenient and considering the pandemic for offering deferral. Mine is an Ivy League school but others are not even this lucky,” said Urvi.

Her college hasn’t given a deferral “but they are considerate”, she said.

Urvi is working and hasn't quit her job yet. So if things don’t pan out, she has a fallback option unlike many others spoke to whose dreams of pursuing education in the US and UK have been put on hold.

“They are considerate but still I am disappointed with them because there is no plan of action. They should clearly tell us what they intend to do. Universities are only considering intake at this point and are not considering the wait and time that goes in preparation,” Urvi added.

The news she is getting from her seniors already enrolled there is that many are doing online courses for the same tuition fees, which, she said, doesn’t work for her field. "It is planning and design and more about interaction with professors and lecturers. Not something they can compensate online,” she said.

While there is no plan of action from the universities for the fall season, Urvi said it is going to hit them financially as much depends on the international students. Speaking about her course, she said it can’t kick off because a third of the students are Indians, another third Chinese and the remaining American.

According to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, for six years the total number of Indians pursuing higher education in the United States has grown steadily. In 2019, it recorded an increase of almost three per cent over 2018.

The US is the top choice for students coming from China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil and Mexico. They end up in California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.

As per the report, Indians constitute over 18 per cent of all international students in the United States.

“At this point, looking at the news, I wouldn’t even blame the university," she said. "They are not getting clear directions from their own country."

She is likely to put her plans on hold for a more certain time, like Shruti Swant, who is expected to join the University of London for a year-long course on development and planning.

Their views are in line with a recent survey done on 11,000 students by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), the educational rankings agency that says nearly half of the students around the world with plans to study abroad are considering deferment. The study revealed that a fifth of them are considering finding an alternative destination or drop the plans altogether.

The American Council on Education, which is a higher-education advocacy group, has estimated that the number of students on US campuses will decline by 15 per cent, leading to $23billion in lost revenue.

When Shruti applied in universities in the United Kingdom, she chose the campus because it is centrally located and offers studio-based education. If she makes it this fall, she will be exploring the city to get an understanding and certificate in planning to come back and possibly be a consultant with the government of India.

She is anxious now as there is no certainty about the period of lockdown in India. “Before the lockdown, I had to go for student loan application and submit documents. I contacted the university about it. While they are pretty sure of things getting under control before my session in September 2020, I have to worry about having enough time to prepare and leave,” she said.

Many schools and colleges are redrawing the ways of teaching, mapping new strategies. Reportedly, Boston University has said that if the threat of the virus continues, it may not return to face-to-face instruction until January 2021.

The experience of studying online is not the same, says Kashmira Pramod Sonar. She was admitted in two architecture schools - Columbia School of Architecture in New York, US, and Bartlett School of Architecture in London, UK.

Though the US seemed more advantageous in terms of future job possibilities as the course is also under STEM category, which allows students to stay in the country for three years after graduation for work, she considered the position of the London university which is ranked the world's best architecture school, and opted for the quality of education and exposure to more advanced technologies.

But, she said that with the Covid-19 pandemic, everything is uncertain and teaching has been shifted completely online. "We were using very high speed and advanced configuration computers at the university. So the quality of online teaching is average and unable to produce the same quality of work as before. It is very disappointing, unless we buy ourselves new desktops to work from home. As many of us are also in a financial crisis, this is only increasing the burden,” she said.

The online classes due to Covid 19 have dimmed job prospects as well for the students with her. Her course involved 50 per cent of computational design and the other half was fabrication which is then supposed to be displayed in the annual exhibition.

“This exhibition also exposes the students to firms looking for employees. Since we cannot access any of the workshop facilities and robotics, we are at a standstill with the fabrication process which also affects us more now with finding a job in the future,” she said.

The students have already issued a letter of concern regarding the teaching methodology and reimbursement of tuition fees due to lack of accesses to crucial facilities and are waiting for the department's reply which is expected in May.

Online courses can be a way forward for the universities, but Anchit Baweja, founder of the United States Education Resource Centre, said decisions about studying abroad need to be made with these realities in mind.

“As of now, students who are trying a one-year course must defer their offer letter as there are chances of courses shifting online. Anybody going for an undergraduate degree should go because it is for three-four years. It’s alright to have some part of the learning online but not the entire course, which will be disappointing,” Anchit said.

Fall 2021 should be fine to pursue education abroad, he said. Anchit thinks the situation might be better for students going for STEM courses as they will be in demand because of science and IT becoming more pronounced in times of Covid-19.

He added that universities are going to defer or go digital. “Many of them are not expecting the intake they usually get in the fall. These changes will unfold in many ways, impacting on fee, fund and jobs,” he said.

Caught between tricky situations of admission in University of Illinois, Chicago and serving a notice period at his software firm is Karan Malhotra. He has nowhere to go if the lockdown extends and the US doesn't find the situation under control. "I am serving the notice period; don't know if I will make it by fall for a niche course in development and operations (DevOps)," he said. "If nothing happens, I will have to look for another job. But will we have jobs here?"