Digging up a cash crop of fertile minds in dusty fields

April 7, 2006

Amrit Dhillon explains why India - both urban and rural - is such a popular recruiting ground for UK universities

With the battle for international students - and their cash - becoming ever more ferocious, India is the hot new destination for UK recruitment officers.

And whereas British universities used to seek students in the big cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, for the first time they are promoting their courses in small-town India - a dusty, nondescript place that conceals a surprising amount of wealth behind open sewers and rotting piles of rubbish.

Some 4,000 Indian students enrolled in UK universities in 1999. In 2003, the number rose to 12,000 and this year the figure is likely to hit 18,000.

But UK institutions are hungry for more, which is why they are targeting small towns and adopting more aggressive tactics.

Only five or six years ago, many universities used to saunter over to India once a year on a casual "shopping" trip, recruit a handful of students and then go home. Ruchika Castellino, head of education and UK promotion at the British Council in New Delhi, says: "Their whole approach is different now.

They have a strategic long-term focus on India and a willingness to invest time, effort and resources."

Some 14 universities have opened full-time offices in India. These include Leeds, London Metropolitan, Warwick, Leeds Metropolitan, Brighton International Business School, Thames Valley, Sunderland, Wolverhampton and Middlesex. Their spending on advertising has also risen hugely. In the peak months of May, June and July, when students are deciding what to do, every Delhi newspaper has about 20 advertisements placed by UK universities.

Having a UK education carries enormous cachet in India, and the proof is in the figures. After the Chinese, Indians form the largest contingent of foreign students at Warwick University.

Maroof Raza, who heads Middlesex University's Indian office, is sending 600 Indian students to Middlesex this year.

"It helps to have a permanent office here. Students keep coming back to check that they're making the right decision or to get more information.

It's a huge investment and they need to be sure they're choosing the right university," Raza says.

Other universities have full-time agents to promote their courses at private schools and to liaise with prospective students. In 1999, there were five UK agents in India. There are now more than 60, representing about 70 universities.

Even the British Council is taking a creative approach. In the past it has offered its premises for yearly education fairs, but these days it rolls out colourful buses and roadshows on the sleepy streets of towns such as Bhopal and Indore hoping to persuade students of the benefits of a UK degree.

In 2004, the British Council held a Club UK dance party in Bhopal and Sir Mark Tully, former BBC correspondent in India, gave a lecture to students.

It also handed out copies of Club UK, a British Council magazine that gives Indian students information about studying and living in the UK.

Another sign of UK universities' enthusiasm for Indian students is the establishment of alumni networks. "When university officials come here, they can draw on their alumni's knowledge of the country and the schools and get them to address prospective students," Castellino says.

They don't have to give a hard sell. UK undergraduate courses are three years long, rather than four, as in the US. This makes them instantly more appealing to Indians. A UK university education costs about 1.5 million Indian rupees (£19,500) a year, so having one year less to pay for is appealing. Preeti Gadok, manager of education at the British Council, adds:

"It also means they can hit the job market earlier than if they studied in the US. We're close to closing the gap between the number of Indian students who go to the UK and the number who go to the US."

MBA courses are also shorter in the UK than in the US - one year compared with two. Sixty per cent of Indian students who study in the UK enrol on shorter postgraduate courses rather than undergraduate ones. They still get the cachet of a UK qualification but the costs are considerably lower.

But there are many other reasons why the UK is the preferred option. Many Indian families have relatives or friends settled in Britain and they instinctively prefer the UK to the US, finding it culturally more familiar, geographically closer and a "safer" society than the US. This is why Indian parents choose, in particular, to send their daughters to the UK.

Neha Anand, who has been accepted to read finance and accounting at Warwick, says: "There is a high comfort level with England. I've got relatives in Hounslow so my parents feel I can easily visit them at weekends. And it will be easier visiting me than going to America."

These days, going abroad to study is no longer the preserve of India's very rich. With a booming economy growing at 8 per cent a year, high levels of disposable income and equally high aspirations even middle-class families can contemplate paying for the prestige that a foreign degree lends to their child's CV. And student loans are now easily available from Indian banks, which was not the case in the past.

Moreover, it has become more and more difficult to get a university place in India. The gap between supply and demand has spawned ferocious competition for places. Only the exceptionally gifted get into their first-choice university. Other bright teenagers have to settle for a less prestigious Indian university. This makes a good foreign institution an attractive alternative.

Sometimes there are other reasons for going to the UK. Indian universities tend to lack specialised courses, such as those in international banking and finance.

Then there is the question of international exposure. Amitav Godbole is doing an MSc in finance at Leeds Metropolitan University. He chose the course because of its international milieu. "India is such a conservative society that we're not exposed to new trends or ideas or what's happening in the world. Since I'll probably end up working in that kind of environment, I might as well get used to it now as a student," he says.

But the most common reason for studying in the UK is the conviction that a UK degree, respected around the world, will lead to better job prospects.

The overwhelming belief is that students will get value for money.

The feeling is mutual. "British universities are impressed with India's intellectual capital. They know Indian students are going to be an asset.

Combine that with the growing number of Indians who can finance a British degree and you have a powerful combination," Gadok says.

The high regard in which British education is held has even filtered down to the countryside. Nidhi Kapur, an agent in Sunderland University's recently established office in New Delhi, says she is stunned by the people who walk into her office seeking information about UK universities - people such as farmers' sons, who traditionally go straight into the family business.

"It's astonishing. These children are breaking the family tradition by not tilling the land. Usually the whole family is uneducated, but it has saved up money and decided it is time that one of them got an education," Kapur says.

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